Issue 74 (2021)

Ksenia Zueva: Intervention (Vmeshatel’stvo, 2020)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2021

vmeshatelstvoIntervention, written and directed by Ksenia Zueva and produced by Atlantic, debuted in September 2020. This film is Ksenia Zueva’s second full-length film following her debut feature Nearest and Dearest (Blizkie, 2017), both of which were nominated for awards at Kinotavr. In Intervention, Masha, a young woman with a heart defect from an unnamed provincial town, dreams of love but is oppressed and beaten down by her circumstances. Intervention connects viewers to a desolate snowbound town, abusive manipulating men, broken and hopeless families and a young woman trying to make a future for herself. The film has numerous scenes with graphic sex and violence earning the rating of 18+.  Zueva’s film is striking for its lack of dialog, attention to music and close-ups, and the use of superimposed images.

Zueva is a director, actor, screenwriter and artist. She graduated in 2012 from the Boris Shchukin Theater Institute and in 2013 enrolled in the Higher Courses for Writers and Directors where she finished the screenplay for Nearest and Dearest, and wrote, directed, and produced the short Gelya (2015). Her first full-length film, Nearest and Dearest, was nominated for a Kinotavr Grand Prix [repetition – see line 3]and won two prizes at smaller festivals. At the 31st Kinotavr, not only was Zueva’s Intervention nominated, but she also appeared as an actor in two other nominated films, Conference (Konferenstiia, Ivan Tverdovskii, 2020) and Russian Spleen (Khandra, Aleksei Kamynin, 2019).

Ivmeshatelstvontervention is an exploration of a young woman’s loneliness and lack of meaningful love. The film is set in a desolate winter scape in a provincial town of Soviet style apartment buildings with gopniki dressed in Adidas gathered in the streets, old women cooking in their dilapidated Soviet kitchens and old men drinking in their garages. In the film, life in the Russian provinces is meaningless and full of suffering, and accordingly Masha’s home life, personal life and professional life are all bleak. She helps her grandmother raise her younger brother, while her absent alcoholic father causes destruction and mayhem in his inebriated outbursts. Masha has no education and at the beginning of the film is working as an exotic dancer at a club that her abusive boyfriend, Gosha, manages. One night on stage, she collapses and is rushed to the nearest hospital where a heart surgeon, Matvei Sergeevich, operates to save her life. Despite the age difference, Masha falls in love with the surgeon and the two begin a relationship. While this life-saving operation and new love sets the stage for a transformation in Masha’s life, this transformation is never achieved. Zueva clearly drops clues that this new love also manipulates Masha and leads to an abortive suicide attempt near the end of the film.

vmeshatelstvoIn Intervention, men perpetuate violence against women, both in mental and physical ways. In the opening scene, Masha and her boyfriend Gosha sleep entangled together in a white billowy sheet, in what appears to be a pristine bed of two lovers. However, the mattress is on the floor of a room in a communal apartment and when Masha washes up in the communal kitchen, she stares at the peeling paint on the walls and rust stains around the faucet. Her relationship with Gosha resembles the communal kitchen more than a lover’s nest. Their relationship displays clear signs of abuse within the first 15 minutes of the film. When Masha arrives late to work because she is feeling ill and has tried to consult a doctor, she is met with Gosha’s reprimands. He continually puts her down by insulting her appearance, intelligence, and interests. When Masha suggests that Gosha is sleeping with the other exotic dancer at the club, he confirms that and yells expletives demeaning her in an attempt to make himself the victim. Gosha’s character has a quick and unpredictable temper and his speech is infused with swearing. While these opening scenes are proof that Masha is a victim of verbal assault, by the end of the film Gosha turns to physical violence when he cuts her off on her moped and pushes her down a snowy embankment, hitting, beating and punching her. Zueva is careful to make sure that the audience does not side with the abusive boyfriend. Gosha is abusive to his mother as well, yelling and screaming at her when she asks him to properly seal the windows against the winter cold, again making himself the victim.

 The grey haired, balding Matvei Sergeevich, the cardiac surgeon who saves Masha’s life, is far from a savior either. While one can argue that he is not physically and mentally abusive to Masha in the same way that Gosha is, Matvei Sergeevich lies and misleads an already fragile Masha. After her life-saving operation, Masha takes the first step to contact Matvei through social media on her phone sending him a provocative selfie of her chest. The fade out from Masha on her bed with her phone in her hand leads to an erotic daydream of her and the doctor beginning to make love, which is interrupted by her little brother knocking on her bedroom door. However, it is not long before Masha follows the surgeon to a party and this scene plays out in Matvei’s apartment. As expected, Matvei’s life is not what it seems. He welcomes his estranged wife back home and Masha learns that he has a daughter who is just about her age. Matvei’s violence against Masha is manipulative and mentally taxing, which drives Masha to attempt suicide on her moped. She swerves at the last moment, only to be followed by Gosha, pushed off the road, and beaten.
vmeshatelstvoThis film is reminiscent of the chernukha cinema of the late 1980s and early 1990s, films that channeled crisis and social anxieties as the Soviet Union fell apart. The visual style and the pessimistic narrative of chernukha cinema are certainly traits that are rekindled in Intervention.  Perhaps Zueva is suggesting that Russian still has not articulated answers to the bleakness of Russian provincial life in the 2020s. One element of chernukha employed in Intervention is the subordination of the verbal signifier (dialog) to the visual image and physicality. The sex scenes in this film are prime examples of this trope as they focus on various sex acts, closeups of faces, and body parts. Dialog is unnecessary. The music played is often electronic, including “Angel” by the British Trip Hop group Massive Attack; a heartbeat is frequently played to remind viewers of Masha’s heart condition. However, the sex scenes are not the only ones that feature closeups of body parts and faces with a musical accompaniment. Masha often paces with a cigarette in her hands, outside near the entrance of her apartment building, in the stairwell, in a playground covered in snow, with electronic music in the background. While these scenes use wider shots than the sex scenes, Masha and her body still dominate the frame. Zueva also employs superimpositions of one image over another creating a type of physical cross fade. These fades are used in scenes of heightened physical emotion, including dance scenes and sex scenes. These cross fade/superimpositions help the viewer connect Masha’s body to her emotions, giving the audience a view into Masha’s internal space and thoughts.

Of course, there are glimpses of happiness throughout the film. But they remind viewers more of what Masha will never have. In the hospital her roommate introduces Masha to her husband and three small children. She invites Masha to come visit and bring her younger brother. In another scene, Masha helps her grandmother cut potatoes and she talks to her  her love for the surgeon. Her grandmother encourages her and shares her happiness. Even the scene where Matvei and Masha go out to a club is filled with happiness. But just as Matvei, with his balding grey head, looks out of place at the club, all these happy moments seem out of place or out of reach for Masha within the film.

The final scene also harkens back to chernukha cinema in that there is no possibility of redemption for the main character.  Masha has left Gosha in jail and Matvei has returned to his family. Masha, after a fling with a stranger in a club, is alone in a playground on a swing as her body slumps onto the cold snow-covered ground. We are treated to a close-up of her body that transitions to Masha’s dream of an embrace with the doctor with a soundtrack of a heartbeat. The film ends as the heartbeat dies away and the audience is left with Masha lying on the ground. Dead, the viewer assumes, based at least in part on the importance of physicality in the film. Masha will never grow up. She will always be an abused child from the Russian provinces, a victim of a misogynist culture and economic apathy.

Lora Mjolsness
University of California, Irvine

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Intervention, Russia, 2020
Color; 125 minutes
Director: Ksenia Zueva
Script: Ksenia Zueva
Producers: Oleg Evdokimenko, Marika Mikhareva
Composer: Mariia Zhulanova, Mark Tabak, Il’ia Andrus
Cinematography: Tatiana Makovskaia
Editor: Andrey Cherkasov
Cast: Ania Chipovskaia, Pavel Popov, Andris Keišs, Kseniia Rappoport, Ivan I. Tverdovskii, Daria Ekamasova, Natal’ia Pavlenkova, Mariia Fomina, Mikhail Negin, Sadjida Popova

Ksenia Zueva: Intervention (Vmeshatel’stvo, 2020)

reviewed by Lora Mjolsness © 2021

Updated: 2021