Issue 34 (2011)

Angelina Nikonova, Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011)

reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2011

Angelina Nikonova’s first film, Twilight Portrait, engages with a wide range of issues that involve sexual violence, gender, abuse of children, police brutality, the dysfunctional family, and corporate business in a contemporary Russian metropolitan milieu. The film avoids conventional engagement with past Russian history and regional identity. Not a monumental blockbuster, an allegory, nor a fantasy, Twilight Portrait focuses on a politics of the present. This is not to say that the film eschews a historical perspective, but in its episodic structure concentrates on breaking the hold of repetition manifested in various dimensions of everyday life. The style evokes television melodrama and especially the woman’s film developed through a number of episodes that center on rape, as trope to create a portrait of estrangement, physical and verbal terror that often exceeds a sociological treatment.

twilight portraitWhat is distinctive is Twilight Portrait’s sustained focus on its female protagonist, Marina Sergeevna, played by Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia, who is both observer and actor along with sharing responsibility for the script. The various episodes dramatize and visualize her transformation from a passive figure to one actively embracing an unknown future. Furthermore, in its focus on female vulnerability, not only through her role but also through that of other female characters, the film avoids the familiar treatment of woman solely as victim. Rather, the victims are children subjugated to the terrorism of the family. However, as the film unfolds, it becomes apparent through its style that its politics are tied to institutions through language and silence, and that the film is more invested in investigating the role of verbal, visual, and gestural language than in reproducing a conventional realist and feminist narrative.

The opening is a prologue to the callous indifference of the film’s world by plunging the viewer directly into a portrait of brutality. Three policemen (cops) on the prowl in a police car patrol their route and witness a young woman alight from a truck and run frantically into a barren and scruffy wooded area. She is exhorted by loudspeaker to stop running as she attempts vainly to escape. The shot of the brutalized nameless young woman, referred to by the police as a “tramp,” cuts to Marina, awakened by the sound of screams. Disturbed, she rises, goes to the window and exhorts two men to investigate. They are at a table surrounded by numerous liquor bottles where Il’ia, her husband, and his business associate Valera are discussing their business ventures, anticipating support from Marina’s wealthy father. The two men claim not to have heard the screams, thus introducing the film’s concern with hearing and selective cultural deafness. She helps Valera up as her husband remains drunkenly passive, and the scene returns to the wooded landscape as one cop takes money from the girl’s purse while another rapes her. The third cop, in the patrol car, Andrei (Sergei Borisov), reproaches the driver for keeping the money he has taken, and the car drives off as the reproached cop throws some money on the road, for the young woman “to buy new panties,” leaving her crying bitterly on the ground.

twilight portraitThe link between sexual violence, women’s vulnerability, and money reappears more subtly in another explicit sex scene with Marina and Valera. Here, the filmmaker examines the border between consent, coercion, and rape. Prefaced with his description of the house in which they are staying, a cheap out-of-town rental for workers that Valera is supposed to be inspecting, the viewer learns that he uses the place to fulfill Marina’s husband’s “marital obligations.” Using a shaky technique by simulating a hand-held camera to identify Marina’s perspective, the camera pans the unprepossessing room and the mechanical sex act that ensues. Lying supine and indifferent to his gyrations, Marina comments “this is not working,” while he insists, “A little more, hold on.” The after-sex conversation that follows this dismal encounter entails a discussion of his and Il’ia’s business venture in which she is to contact her father for support. Marina is then filmed outdoors, looking at the exterior of the building as she waits for Valera.

The camera will film similar dreary sites as a coda to animate the repetitive milieu. Valera leaves her abruptly, telling her to take a cab. Wordlessly, alone, Marina walks on in one of the numerous and lengthy street shots that punctuate her movement throughout the film. Filmed in close-up and middle distance, she trips and breaks her heel. People pass her but no one offers help to the limping woman. Marina finally enters a café for assistance, and the camera pans the drab establishment until it stops at two women sitting at a table, indifferent to her entry. When one of the women comes to serve Marina, an uncongenial dialogue ensues in which the woman refuses to call a cab, or bring Marina water, coffee, or tea, but insists that she must order food “vodka, beer, chebureki, sausages.” Finally demanding, “Lady, I don’t get it, are you ordering or not?” Marina orders and goes to the toilet to take a phone call from her husband, lying to him that she is “in a meeting,” a foreshowing of her marital relation. She exits as another woman is mouthing in a karaoke-style a popular song from a recording. While this event seems merely to reflect on the cheap entertainment available, it also has relevance for the film’s focus on the disjoining of visual and auditory images in the film’s concern with connections between hearing and seeing. The food arrives, set by the server perfunctorily on the table. Marina leaves the food and exits, again alone on the street seeking assistance.

Marina again attempts to thumb a ride, but no car stops to pick her up until one halts to ask her “how much?” Marina responds, “five hundred,” and the car quickly drives away. She walks until another car abruptly brakes, only long enough for a young man to grab her purse and drive off. On the street, she asks pedestrians for help but they too ignore her. Finally, help seems to arrive. A police car stops and she is asked for her ID: it is the police from the film’s opening sequences. She gets in and informs them that her purse was stolen; however, she is trapped and molested in the rear seat by the same policeman who had raped the young girl earlier. She offers to pay them for helping her return home and then threatens to report them. The cop in the passenger seat shouts, “Let’s throw her out,” while Andrei, in the driver’s seat, who will later assume a dominant role in the narrative, mocks her “fat wallet” and encourages the young cop in the rear, to “treat her to some working class stiffs.” She screams, and the screen goes black, though the spectator hears her groans and pleas but spared a vision of the explicit rape.

On the ground and crying, her clothes torn, people pass, see her, and ignore her plight, except for one man who returns with a car, but the scene cuts abruptly to her husband in bed looking at his watch, sitting up in close-up, then framed in middle distance at the window as he sees the car arrive. From his perspective, she exits the car, leaving the impression that she is returning from a tryst. Ironically, Marina offers the Good Samaritan money, but he refuses, concerned only for her well-being. This becomes the first instance of a helpful person, a slight rupture in the repetitive scenario and a turning point in relation to Marina.

As Marina enters the apartment, Il’ia pretends to be asleep. She takes a shower as the camera travels up her nude body to her face. Washing the dirt from her nails at the sink, the camera reveals the apartment to be in direct contrast to the shots of the earlier, rented workers’ apartments, more spacious, well-appointed, and modern. Her husband appears and she tells him that her purse was stolen “at her office.” His response is only to express anxiety about her missing passport, credit cards, and bank information. If the scenes thus far have presented distortions of verbal and gestural language in which characters cannot see or hear each other, and where lying, manipulation, misplaced emphasis, and terrorizing women and children is habitual, this episode extends this antagonistic scenario into marriage, further tying it to familiar economic and social class considerations—and Marina is silenced.

Employed as a social worker to treat dysfunctional families, Marina is filmed in a tiny office where she interviews children in the presence, or preferably, in the absence of parents. A mother complains that they do not need help, since she describes her situation as being “like any family, completely normal people,” yet she expresses having difficulty with her unresponsive male child. The husband describes beating him as a “little smack on the head” necessary for getting the child to conform, and justifies this as characteristic of his father’s treatment of him. Supportive of the husband, the wife turns to the child to extract an answer to the question “Do we beat you?”  Of course, the child (in close-up) is silent, and Marina asks to see him alone where he is shown playing wordlessly, using a toy fire engine to knock smaller objects to the floor as Marina looks on helplessly.

twilight portraitMarina’s friends are unsympathetic to her complaints about the hopeless nature of her work, and at a lunch, she is told by one, Tania, a medical technician, that she “takes things too seriously,” but Marina expresses her concern for the future when confronted by drunk fathers and hysterical mothers whose children will grow up and beat their children who will in turn “grow up to become normal losers.” As she describes the hopeless character of her work, the friend eats, and orders more food, merely asking Marina if she is having her “period”? A more ominous note is struck when Marina, after a lengthy silence and a view of her in close-up, confesses that she was raped, an explanation for a blood test. Her friend merely looks blankly at her, registering little response, and the scene cuts to a sparkling clean and impersonal clinic where the dialogue that Marina overhears is predictably clichéd and impersonal. After the blood test (shown in close-up) and another long tracking shot of Marina walking on the street with panoramic view of the city in the background, she returns to cafe to order the familiar menu of vodka, beer, chebureki, and sausage, this time eating heartily. An element of wry humor is introduced when the server this time mockingly informs her “no chebureki.” An intercut window shot of a woman outdoors peeing on the ground anticipates Marina’s later experiences on the street, reinforcing the film’s structuring of parallels.

In her apartment, caught half-dressed as she is about to shower, Marina is surprised by a birthday party arranged by her husband and friends. Sullen and annoyed, she retreats and the friends contemplate leaving; however, she returns to the “festivities.” The emphasis on excessive food in contrast to the fare at the café underscores the social distinctions between Marina, her social group, and the customers at the café. The scene becomes a dramatic exposure of marriage, friendship, and business.  

After serving the food, and listening to her husband describe his business project that depends on her father, the group eats, drinks, sings nostalgic songs, and toasts Marina as a woman who has everything—an interesting job, a loving husband, and friends, though no children (their portrait of the good life). Marina then proposes her own toast in which she spares no words in unmasking their lies, secrets, hypocritical social arrangements, and shoddy materialism. She overturns the description of herself as “a happy woman,” by exposing her husband’s weakness, cowardice, and obsession with business. As to her job, she contrasts her advocacy of the downtrodden to the indifferent demeanor of her “friends.” She challenges their “loving” behavior, recounting how Tania, exploited her by making her pay to rent, not borrow, a green suede skirt and then later “never paid” her for “having sex with my husband” during his mother’s funeral while Marina took care of the arrangements. Finally she turns to Valera, Il’ia’s business associate to expose her adulterous sexual encounters with him. She salutes them all, sits, and eats as the others look on in silence.

twilight portraitAfter a long shot of city scenes of people walking on the street to mark the passage of time, the film returns to scenes of the aftermath of the party with images of waste, food spread out, bottles everywhere with no dialogue between Marina and Il’ia about her scathing toast. One of the most grotesque scenes in the film connected to the scenes of the marriage takes place in a police station where Marina reports the theft of her passport. If the prior party scene conveys the overarching emphasis on domestic lies and secrecy, this scene parallels it with official misrepresentation. A bizarre dialogue takes place in which Marina is coerced into lying about the loss of the document. Smirking, the woman officer declares, “Next you’ll say that someone raped you,” a truth impossible to admit in this bureaucratic circumstance. Inevitably, Marina concedes to write a statement that completely misrepresents what happened, having to ascribe the “loss” of the passport to excessive alcohol consumption and a poorly made purse to emphasize her negligence. This encounter offers a grimly comic depiction of a topsy-turvy schizoid world in which language has no claims to the actual, amounting rather to epistemological violence.

In the subsequent episodes, Marina further strips away attachments to her former life. Prior to returning home, she returns to the café that has come to be her perch, a territory of sorts, to view her world and assimilate it from a different perspective to her domestic and work life. Returning home, her husband propped up in bed and oblivious to her arrival, is looking at a computer and inappropriately informing her about Japanese engineers who have worked out using excrement for fuel. She responds cynically by asking, ”whose shit will they use?” He responds that she “needs a break” to visit her mother. An episode at work immediately follows in which she interviews a mother who claims that her sullen daughter, Lera, talks nonsense, “makes things up” (a key element in all aspects of interactions in the film thus far). When Marina asks the young girl to write things down since she refuses to talk, she learns that the father has raped the girl, yet another instance of the prevalence of rape in public and private arenas, this time in relation to the family. Marina runs from her office to find the mother and confront her, only to receive the woman’s angry denial of her daughter’s situation. Concerned that the father will repeat his behavior, Marina vainly and naively calls the authorities to warn them that the girl is in danger.

Distraught, Marina returns to the café. This time, she is seeking the policeman, Andrei, who was a party to her rape, waits, and follows him when he exits. Like a somnambulist, she picks up an empty bottle and when she sees him get in a car, orders a taxi driver to follow him. The taxi driver, assuming familiarity with this scenario, asks if she is following her husband, and she says, “Something like that.” After observing Andrei alone outside his building, she breaks the bottle and follows him inside and, standing behind him, she stops the elevator. But instead of assuming the role of an aggressor ready to attack, she embraces him, then drops out of frame to perform fellatio as judged by the close-up of his face. She restarts the elevator and exits. Andrei watches her as she walks away, and the film now offers a view of his life in this building with crumbling walls, dirty rooms, crowded inhabitants, and young noisy, drug-taking youths listening to contemporary rock music and rowdily shouting and talking about greenhouse effects. They are insolent toward him. He threatens them ineffectually and goes to his room, helps an old man, Gramps, to bed, and does push-ups until he drops in exhaustion.

On the street once again, Marina sees the young woman, Lera, the victim of paternal rape with a group girls as the young woman talks about sex. In a meeting at school with her teacher, Marina expresses concern about Lera. Occupied with putting on lipstick, the teacher calls her “a difficult girl” and when informed that Lera is a victim of sexual abuse, the teacher responds, “Who would have thought it?” but then merely asks if it is safe for Lera to be around other “normal” girls? Marina, silently weighing this bureaucratic response, has no answer. Marina also tries to talk to Lera’s father only to be called “crazy” as he quickly drives away from her. These episodes are further indication of the film’s engagement with repetition as a form of violence as a defense against change, and of her naiveté.

twilight portraitDriven to the airport, Marina perfunctorily says goodbye to Il’ia, and a scene occurs, observed by Marina, that reiterates hostile familial relations. When a woman angrily rejects help from her son-in-law, affirming that she can handle her own baggage and throws it onto the ramp, while the daughter complains that her mother is ruining her makeup in the suitcase. Rebuked by the irate mother, the young man stands helplessly and then cancels his travel ticket. After this episode (perhaps as result of it), Marina leaves the airport with her baggage. Sitting on a bench in the vicinity of Andrei’s dwelling, she observes a woman cleaning the windows of her high-rise dwelling. Joined by others sitting on park benches along with other street people, she goes to a kiosk, where a man desperate for money accosts her and other people standing in line for food. He offers to sell his camera that has the function of “twilight portrait” and auto mode.

She purchases the camera, and later, sitting on a bench, she eats and, in over-her-shoulder shots, examines the pictures the man had taken of his family. Night now, Andrei finds her on the bench asleep. She awakens and the scene cuts abruptly to another scene of repetition with difference, their intense lovemaking again in the elevator. He asks her who she is and she in turn asks him if he lives alone. When he says no, she takes her baggage to exit, but he invites her to stay. He brings her into the apartment, puts Gramps to bed, and again they make love. Following their passionate lovemaking, she tells him she loves him, and he asks her if she is crazy, a repeated term in the film to block hearing and silence undesired behavior.  

A young man, hostile to “chicks,” enters the room and asks who the tramp is. Marina teases the young man and tells him that she can help him get a job, making shit for fuel, and he tells her to “get lost again.” In the morning the camera scans a kitchen with dirty dishes and food scattered everywhere. She comes to Gramps sitting and dressing himself, playing wordlessly with a fishing road, and finds a box of photographs of Andrei and women. Her conversation with Andrei’s brother, Los’, in a darkly lit scene where she shares dope with him, raises this “hard core babe” in his estimation and he talks freely with her. She asks him about one of the photographs and learns that it is Andrei and his wife.  Getting friendlier with the young man, she learns that he and Andrei had both been homeless, victims of a father who abandoned them and a mother who drank.

Gramps adopted the brothers, although he was already an old man, a veteran of military service. Determined to make men of them, he lectured them about his difficult childhood, World War II, the motherland and used discipline on Los’ by violently cutting the young man’s “criminal face” five times as punishment for theft, leaving him permanently scarred. As a hysterical response to the drugs, he and Marina laugh at this narrative until interrupted by Andrei’s return. Finding the two in this condition, Andrei, furious with his brother for giving her dope, throws Marina out on the landing with her suitcase, calling her a “fucking tramp.” She vomits and then passes out, and he becomes concerned whether she is alive.

Increasingly Andrei appears in a nurturing role. Marina observes him unsuccessfully insisting that Gramps take the food. She takes the spoon and is able to feed him by gesturing to the deaf man with her open mouth, thus valorizing the power of gesture in a film where verbal language is suspect. A window shot of massive rows of tall gray apartment buildings from Andrei’s position offers a more introspective portrait of him, as well as furthering the film’s focus on the Moscow milieu. Further, Marina’s presence has produced a semblance of a domestic as he hits his punching bag, she cooks, and he observes her at her work, curious about who she is. He asks about her husband, and she tells him that he thinks she is with her mother in Simferopol. In turn, she asks how he became a cop, and he responds cynically “to do my civic duty.” When she challenges him about who taught him to use words like that (again the emphasis on verbalizing), he adds that actually he ”wanted respect.”  However, he maintains the view that she is a whore, given the way she came onto him in the elevator and “the way you screw.” This repetition of women as prostitutes saturates the film, as well as insistence on the complicit silence of maternal figures.

twilight portraitAndrei acknowledges that no one is supposed to like cops but fear them, and asks if she is afraid of him but she says “no.” She sets a steak before him that he smothers in ketchup, and the subsequent scene reiterates their passionate sexual intercourse. Each time she tells him, “I love you,” he treats her brutally, accusing her of seeing too many soap operas, throwing her down, and by the third time bruising her, and drawing blood. When she awakens alone, she examines her bruised face in the mirror and puts on her makeup. A panning shot of the dirty kitchen from her perspective is prelude to her scrubbing the room. The film poses the enigma of her attraction to violence at his hands, perhaps suggesting a ritual of abjection and cleansing for her. In relation to Andrei, the film raises the question of violence as a language of denial.

For Sergei, a challenge to his official position comes by way of a phone call from his superior to inform him that Junior, one of his team, drunk and driving a police car wildly has killed two children. Called to his superior’s office, he and his colleague are told to get the damaged car repaired, find substitute perpetrators, and be silent about what actually happened, reminiscent of Marina’s encounter at the passport office and, more broadly, of the film’s obsessive concern with concealment, violence, and silence. Andrei goes to the café where we have seen Marina several times, smokes and drinks, shot in extreme close-up, as if reflecting on what has transpired, a repetitive enigmatic position from the film’s opening.

Returning to the apartment he finds her cooking in a different domestic environment. Having scrubbed the premises wordlessly, Marina serves him soup, sits with him, and eats too. She disrupts the placid domesticity of the scene by reiterating that she loves him. He exits angrily but this time without hitting her and goes to sit on the roof where once again the urban background is foregrounded. She joins him and he gives her a gun, telling her to shoot a bird. She refuses, but this moment becomes an occasion for them to talk about another “dead bird,” the wife to whom he was married and who “is dead to him”. Marina asks to take a picture of him “as a souvenir.” When he tells her to turn on the flash, she informs him of the “twilight portrait” function. In bed later, both nude, she gently caresses his body, but he rises and tells her to leave, finding her affection unbearable. Before leaving, she asks Andrei for help to frighten Lera’s father.

The scene cuts to Lera’s home where her mother is hysterically berating Lera sitting passively at the computer as the father sits with his head in hands. He tells his wife to “take a walk” and she exits, but then he tries to touch Lera. Screaming loudly, then shouting “help,” she leaves the apartment. Outside, Lera sees Marina in Andrei’s police car. Marina is joined by Andrei who races away from the scene, while Lera returns to find her father bleeding, and asks for his forgiveness. In the car, Marina asks Andrei what did to the man and, assuming that he did more than threaten, she hits him and calls him “a stupid beast.” He ironically poses the question of whether he should merely have given the man a verbal warning or a fine, and that he wanted to kill the man but didn’t. After a long silence she raises the ambiguous question: “What if he didn’t do it?” that underpins the film’s uncertain relation to violence rather than “truth.”

twilight portraitThe film closes with several brief but crucial events: an uncomfortable encounter in an elevator where Il’ia, Valera and Marina’s father discuss money that Il’ia has to return to the bank, presumably shut out by his business partner Valera; another encounter with Andrei and his colleague in the police car as they bring Marina to the airport; Il’ia arriving at the airport to pick up Marina, while she takes steps to successfully evade him. Andrei observes her evasion and from his perspective he sees the husband leave and Marina alone sitting on her luggage. She gets up and begins to walk. Watching her, Andrei takes off his police coat, his holster and pistol, asks his colleague to return them at the station, and walks slowly in her direction. The shots are taken at twilight as the images of the two, walking slowly at a distance from each other, recede into the landscape.

The film, ending on this note of indeterminacy about future, is an opportunity for the viewer to reflect on the uncertain course of contemporary Russian culture. Rather than offering a familiar generic resolution, Twilight Portrait is predominantly an investigative text, presenting a subtle cinematic portrait attentive to questions of cinematic style and reigning discourses about uncivil society. What designates its investigative mode is its treatment of different forms of cinematic language, involving verbal, gestural, visual, and auditory images. While dialogue plays a critical role, the heart of the film regards these different and often conflicting forms of expression as vital to any investigative and affective treatment of narration. In many of its episodes, the viewer is made attentive to how disjunctions in expression provide clues to unraveling the threatening character of repetition and to providing a more immediate sense of reaction rather than statement.            

Thus, the film is self-conscious but not intrusive about its political concerns as they are “developed through cinematic means” (Stempkovski). Among the many ways in which the director and her actors convey their reactions is through their facial expressions, bodily movement, relations to space, and haptic relations to objects. While the film is unrelenting in presenting scenes of rape, nudity, and sex, these become integral to the film’s attempt to pursue cultural and cinematic clichés and affects to which they are attached and that are naturalized through repetition. Most difficult for the viewer is the prominence of physical violence, but what tempers that violence is the greater emphasis on other forms of brutality that often go unrecognized, given the ubiquitous attention to its more blatant expressions.

Marcia Landy
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

Beumers, Birgit, “The Text is Not Important,” Interview with Andrei Stempkovski, Kinokultura 31 (2011).

Twilight Portrait, Russia ,2011
Color, 105 min.
Director: Angelina Nikonova
Screenplay: Angelina Nikonova, Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia
Cinematography: Eben Bull
Production Design: Oleg Fedykhin
Cast: Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia, Sergei Borisov, Roman Merinov, Sergei Goliudov, Anna Ageeva. Andrei Manukov, Aleksandr Kosirev, Vsevolod Voronov
Producers: Leonid Ogarev, Angelina Nikonova, Ol’ga Dykhovichnaia
Production: Baraban Film
International Sales: Rezo

Angelina Nikonova, Twilight Portrait (Portret v sumerkakh, 2011)

reviewed by Marcia Landy © 2011

Updated: 02 Oct 11