Issue 58 (2017)

Valentyn Vasyanovych: Black Level (Riven’ chornoho, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Cassio de Oliveira© 2017

black levelValentyn Vasyanovych’s latest film Black Level, which premiered in the Competition Program of the 2017 Odessa International Film Festival and won the FIPRESCI Prize for Best Ukrainian Feature Film, is one of the most anticipated Ukrainian releases of the year. In a 2015 interview, Vasyanovych referred to Black Level (then carrying the working title Low Light) as a “half-documentary and half-fiction feature about my friend, a 50-something commercial photographer, a real photographer, like I used to be.”[1] One notes this documental aspect of the film—despite slight changes that the plot underwent between that interview and the final product—not only in its ostensible (auto-)biographical content, but also in its cinematic style. Black Level is a thought-provoking film that questions the very nature and ontological status of cinema.

The film tells the story of Kostya (Kostyantyn Mokhnach), a wedding photographer who undergoes a midlife crisis as his fiftieth birthday approaches. His girlfriend Katya (played by Kateryna Molchanova), a model for his wedding dress shots, breaks up with him; his cat dies; finally, in what constitutes the climax of Kostya’s crisis, his aging father, wheelchair-bound after a heart attack, dies. Kostya’s only distraction consists of climbing walls, a fitting allegory for his inner crisis. We see him motioning through a set of climbing props on the wall of his apartment; with an instructor, he tries to climb a wall at the gym, only to repeatedly lose his grip and fall halfway through the climb. Some of the film’s most fascinating scenes take place in a bunker-like parking garage, seemingly deep underground, where Kostya drives down an endless ramp to park his car. From the parking spot, he rappels to a storage space directly underneath instead of taking the short flight of stairs—a powerful representation of his boredom with life.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster,” Elizabeth Bishop writes in “One Art,” and Kostya’s trajectory, progressively shedding physical objects and people, seems to be a visual illustration of those lines. We witness him deleting the photos of his (now ex-) girlfriend. We see him burying his climbing equipment in a field after he once again fails to reach the top of the wall at the gym. After his ex-girlfriend hires Kostya to produce a photo album with her fiancé in his studio, he sets fire to the props at night in the same field, with the lights in the Kyiv residential high-rises forming a flat backdrop of bright and dark squares. The mounting losses (of the girlfriend, the cat, the father, his tools of trade and his tools of recreation) represent a kind of trial by fire, after which Kostya finally seems to find something worth keeping. In the last scene of the film, we find him outdoors, with a smaller camera than the bulky professional SLR he uses in his studio, at the bottom of the ruins of a tall brick wall. After taking a few photos, he proceeds to climb the wall, without any safety equipment, and then exits through the top of the frame. Having left behind his hermetic studio, his dark, bunker-like garage, and the indoor climbing wall of the gym, Kostya seems finally to encounter what he was looking for in the world outside (the frame).

black levelThe last sentence admittedly sounds rather vague: what exactly does Kostya feel, and what had he been looking for? Throughout the film, tragedies and disappointments befall Kostya, yet his reaction—mirroring the behavior of every other character in the film—is one of indifference, frustration, and apathy. Or so it seems, for this brings me to the crucial device of Black Level, namely its utter absence of dialogue or verbal communication more broadly (with the exception of a song in English to which Kostya listens, alone in a room, during his fiftieth birthday party). Characters do not speak with each other in Black Level. In the only scene in which they do, when Katya breaks up with Kostya, we do not hear what she says to him, as the camera is located outside and they are sitting inside his car.

Vasyanovych (a director of documentaries and feature films, as well as a cinematographer)[2] achieves a great feat of cinematic technique by telling a complex and nuanced story, on a difficult topic, with no recourse to words at all. The decision to make a de facto silent film reinforces Vasyanovych’s critique of human relations, insofar as the film emphasizes the blatant physicality and visuality of the protagonist’s exploits. Yet the problem resides, even more seriously, in the hermetic character of those exploits. Kostya photographs inside a studio, uses an indoor climbing wall, has sex with Katya in the back of his SUV ensconced deep inside the parking garage. The tableau-life scenes, shot in single takes with little or no camera movement, reinforce the sense of alienation. Nevertheless, the only noticeable change to Kostya’s situation as the film switches to the last scene is his location outdoors: while we had seen Kostya outside before, this time he is not setting fire to things or burying them, but is, instead, using the outdoor space more constructively. Should we interpret that as a suggestion that true life is outside, in the uncontrolled environment of the “real world,” with its serendipitous encounters, concrete risks, and life-changing experiences? Whether this is the message or not, this viewer left the theater feeling a bit skeptical: after all, by film’s end Kostya displays the same focus on the visual (photography) and the physical (wall climbing) as he had before, the main difference being that he has no climbing companions or human subjects for his photographs.

Surely, the film is not an affirmation of loneliness and self-sufficiency, yet one wonders to what extent Kostya has actually overcome his midlife crisis, given that, as the credits roll up the screen, we are at a loss to understand what has actually changed in his life. If the last scene is to be read allegorically (as perhaps the entire film should be), the allegory feels a bit strained and superficial. This derives from the aforementioned elimination of dialogue from the film. While ambitious and worthy of praise in its attempt to return to the purely visual origins of cinema (the diegetic ambient sound notwithstanding), this self-imposed limitation comes with its fair share of shortcomings.

black levelSilence can represent lack of communication (the silence between two strangers, between an estranged couple, or aboard a subway car), or, on the contrary, it can denote genuine communication (Tolstoy’s meaningful but silent exchanges of glances). The main problem with silence in Black Level is that, while it seems clear enough that the former kind of silence dominates Kostya’s interactions throughout the film, at no time do we feel that he has achieved the latter form of silent communication, making the film’s conclusion all the more unconvincing. About halfway through the film, I began to wonder how far Black Level could go without featuring a dialogue. The deliberate, self-imposed embrace of silence began to feel gimmicky; it triggered a feeling of alienation, not only between characters, but also between the viewer and the film itself: we can only see what Kostya is doing, but we understand very little of what he thinks or feels about it. While this alienation arises by design, it also contradicts the subject matter of the film. Kostya’s midlife crisis is connected with his apathy and indifference towards the world; as we witness the models in Kostya’s studio silently strike pose after pose, their motions carefully choreographed by the beep of the camera, we also understand how the film links indifference and apathy to modernity itself. Like Kostya, coldly observing the world from behind his camera, we too become silent and passive spectators of his life; and we, like him, find ourselves curiously indifferent to his crisis. Perhaps Vasyanovych’s point is precisely that it is foolish to look for empathy by means of a medium such as film (and, for that matter, photography). We can witness Kostya’s crisis, but cinema, by itself, can never make us feel what he feels.

In conclusion, Black Level is a complex, engrossing film that makes us question the very mechanisms through which cinema creates and displays meaning. The film is a meditation on modern life, with its obsession with the visible and the palpable; it is also a powerful meditation on cinema’s ability to tell stories by means of moving images alone.


Notes

1] Interview with Kudláč. In the interview, Vasyanovych also states that the film had a budget of only twenty thousand euros, and that the script was written almost simultaneously with the shooting.

2] See the reviews of Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s The Tribe, with cinematography by Vasyanovych, here and here.

Cassio de Oliveira
Portland State University

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Works Cited

Martin Kudláč. 2015. “Low Light is my personal experimental project.” Interview with Valentyn Vasyanovych. Cineuropa. 29 October.


Black Level, Ukraine, 2016.
Color, 91 min.
Director: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Script: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Producers: Iya Myslyts’ka, Valentyn Vasyanovych, and Denys Ivanov.
Cinematographer: Valentyn Vasyanovych.
Cast: Kostyantyn Mokhnach, Kateryna Molchanova.
Production: Garmata Film.
Distributor: Arthouse Traffic.
Premiered July 17, 2017 at the Festival Palace (Odessa Academic Theatre of Musical Comedy), Odesa International Film Festival.

Valentyn Vasyanovych: Black Level (Riven’ chornoho, Ukraine, 2016)

reviewed by Cassio de Oliveira© 2017

Updated: 2017