Issue 58 (2017)

Roman Volobuev: The Cold Front (Kholodnyi front, 2016)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2017

cold frontThe Cold Front (Kholodnyi front) features an early scene in which the carcass of an unidentified creature is discovered washed up on the seashore. As a plot device, the beast is ultimately a red herring, promising a fantastical element to the story that never fully materializes. As the film’s central metaphor, however, it serves the dual purpose of foreshadowing the mundane monsters lurking beneath the central characters’ beautiful exteriors and eliciting superficial comparisons to Andrei Zviagintsev’s Leviathan (Leviafan), whose beached skeleton already has become an iconic image of Russian cinema. Consequently, Leviathan has been mentioned as a reference point in nearly every Russian review of The Cold Front, though any similarities begin and end with those mysterious remains lying in the sand.

Influential former film critic Roman Volobuev’s debut feature is more modestly scaled than Zviagintsev’s magnum opus in every way, and stylistically it owes far less to the Russian tradition than to Western influences such as Bergman’s seaside chamber dramas and Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, in which the central characters and script were conceived primarily by the actors themselves. Here, stars Dar’ia Charusha and Svetlana Ustinova are credited as screenwriters alongside Volobuev, resulting in lived-in, conversational dialogue that resists theatricality despite the presence of gifted young Moscow stage actor Aleksandr Molochnikov as the love triangle’s third member.

Couple Sasha (Charusha) and Il’ia (Molochnikov) are spending the New Year holiday at a cottage on the Normandy coast. A visual artist and writer, respectively, the two have come to France seeking artistic inspiration more so than a romantic getaway, as the tension between them is evident from the opening scene. After Sasha leaves for an overnight business trip to Paris, Il’ia sets out for the bar he apparently frequents instead of writing the novel for which he’s already been paid an advance. En route he sees a crowd on the beach gathered around the aforementioned carcass, a grotesque beast covered in thick fur with the snout and teeth of a crocodile. Later he encounters a young Russian woman (Ustinova) who explains that she missed her train and now has nowhere to spend the night. A one night stand ensues, and she leaves the next morning.

cold frontLater that day, Sasha returns with the young woman in tow, much to Il’ia’s surprise. As it turns out, the two were art school classmates, and upon running into each other at the train station, Sasha invited her former acquaintance, Masha, to spend the holiday with her and Il’ia. Over the next few days the three of them converse, drink, and sleep together in various configurations, culminating in a New Year’s Eve ménage à trois; pasts are revealed, secrets and lies are exposed, and anxiety mounts. The tension eventually erupts in a violent climax, shattering the carefree bohemian facade Sasha and Il’ia had carefully constructed.

The Cold Front is a Russian and French coproduction and was filmed entirely on location on the Normandy coast, yet interactions between the main characters and French locals are almost nonexistent. Instead, they end up willingly hermetically sealed off from the outside world at their cottage, exacerbating their own and one another’s worst narcissistic tendencies. Communication with anyone outside of their triangle is impossible. Il’ia’s inability to speak French is revealed on two separate occasions. At the bar, he tries to speak English to the tender, who does not understand him. Later, when the cabin’s power goes out, he telephones for help, but his French is too poor; Sasha, whose French is superior, takes the receiver, but the connection is immediately lost. In this way the narrative works as a meta-commentary on the Russia-as-theme epidemic that continues to plague post-Soviet cinema. Just as the artists Sasha and Il’ia find their lives consumed by a volatile compatriot despite actively seeking non-Russian inspiration, the filmmaker cannot avoid grappling with Russia even when mounting a small-scale relationship drama abroad.

cold frontThis subtext is arguably the most subtle element of Volobuev’s film, which even Afisha, his former home as a journalist, dismissed as offering “nothing outstanding besides beautiful girls and landscapes” (Gol’man 2016). This is no small feat, though. Volobuev and cinematographer Mikhail Khasaia indeed have crafted a visually gorgeous work on a small budget, expertly framing the characters against the empty seaside to convey their physical and increasingly emotional isolation. And if the three impossibly attractive actors’ performances seem rather self-conscious—with Charusha and Ustinova in particular posing, vamping, and pouting their way through every scene—then the approach perfectly suits the characters’ superficiality and vanity.

cold frontAfter the inevitable bloody finale (complete with Chekhov’s hand rake), whether or not Masha’s connection to the sea monster is more than just symbolic remains coyly unanswered despite overt suggestions throughout the film. Earlier, in a darkly humorous Annie Hall homage, Sasha panics and drops a live lobster in the kitchen, and Masha swiftly and emotionlessly picks it up and snaps it neck. “You’re a murderer,” Sasha teases. Some details, especially Masha’s fur coat that is nearly identical to the monster’s pelt—and which she wears on the film’s international poster next to the tagline “Every monster needs a home”—are obvious to point of condescension.

cold frontAt one point Masha reads to the others an entry from Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings; an illustration in the book resembles the dead creature glimpsed earlier. Volobuev’s final thesis seems to be that which Borges suggests in his book’s preface: “The zoology of dreams is far poorer than the zoology of the maker” (Borges 1974: 14). As ever, man is the true monster.

If The Cold Front is ultimately a minor film that raises expectations for future greatness from Volobuev, he may have already shot himself in the foot. His second film, Blockbuster (Blokbaster), produced with a bigger budget and a name cast, was disowned by the director at its Kinotavr Film Festival premiere this summer. Citing his dissatisfaction with a final cut that was printed without his approval, Volobuev proclaimed that his name will be stricken from the film’s credits (Knapskii et al. 2017). It remains to be seen whether this decision will halt his momentum or cement his reputation as one of the industry’s young mavericks.

Dane Reighard
University of California-Los Angeles

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Works Cited

Borges, Jorge Luis. 1974. The Book of Imaginary Beings. Translated by Norman Thomas di Giovanni. London: Penguin.

Gol’man, Nailia. 2016. “‘Kholodnyi front’’ Romana Volobueva: my ne budem srazhat’sia.” Afisha 14 January.

Knapskii, Il’ia; Dariko Tsulaia; and Evgeniia Molodtsova. 2017. “Roman Volobuev uberet svoe imia iz titrov fil’ma ‘Blokbaster’.” KinoPoisk 8 June.

The Cold Front, Russia/France, 2016
Color, 91 minutes
Director: Roman Volobuev
Screenplay: Roman Volobuev, Dar’ia Charusha, Svetlana Ustinova
Cinematographer: Mikhail Khasaia
Production Design: Ekaterina Shcheglova
Music: Dar’ia Charusha (as Darya Naishuller)
Cast: Dar’ia Charusha, Aleksandr Molochnikov, Svetlana Ustinova
Producers: Dar’ia Charusha, Svetlana Ustinova, Iurii Kozyrev, Marya Roban, Ilya Stewart, Mikhail Finogenov

Roman Volobuev: The Cold Front (Kholodnyi front, 2016)

reviewed by Dane Reighard© 2017

Updated: 2017