Issue 39 (2013)

Kirill Serebrennikov: Betrayal (Izmena, 2012)

reviewed by Olga Surkova © 2013

“Behind us our fate was groping” (Arsenii Tarkovskii, “First Dates”, 1962)

Kirill Serebrennikov’s new film, Betrayal, makes a strong and unexpected impression. Judging by the title we may expect to see yet another melodrama. However, this is far from the truth and the intentions of the filmmaker—although he does count on misleading the viewer and unravels an everyday, domestic story with adultery, which is actually a dramatic parable about betrayal as an invincible and dangerous consequence of an inevitable temptation. If you wish: temptation as a particle of universal sin; not only corporal, but also mental temptation, as the deceived wife seduces the similarly deceived husband, having drawn him into her secret knowledge of her husband’s adultery with... his wife. The new partnership between the betrayed spouses is linked through the new, common knowledge, and takes shape from the start through general and joint suffering, which leads to a new coil of the same betrayal. The weakness of human resistance to temptation endows the film with a dramatic and bitter-ironical intonation throughout as it oscillates between drama and farce.

izmenaFrom the pleasure of the betrayal committed in a forbidden and therefore “paradisiacal” territory, in secrecy from others, as they say, “costs them their heads.” However, this knowledge of a sin committed behind their backs makes the life of the deceived spouses equally intolerable and similar to hell, provoking them eventually to lose their heads in the sweet, new, joint sin.

The script of Betrayal was written by Serebrennikov in the co-authorship with Natal’ia Nazarova. However, the film strongly differs from everything the director has done previously in cinema. The heat of passion in his film is so insuperably attractive and strong that the film even seems at first like a provocation of the Russian tradition that morally condemns the flaw, a slap in the face of the New Testament that says “it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” (Matthew 18:7). Looking ahead through the complex action at the film’s ending, you understand and feel the inaccuracy of your initial presumption, which leaves you ultimately alone not only with the repeated betrayal in the plot, but also with the new inevitability of a quite mystical.

This retribution is camouflaged through different sorts of assumptions, behind which we do not find the truth. To start with: is the reason of the death of the two lovers, who fall naked from a hotel balcony, natural or criminal? Moreover, in the ending it will be difficult to us to agree with the banal reason of a death from an ordinary heart attack of the once-deceived husband then accused of the murder, who has in due course become the lover of the woman, whose husband was once awry enough to give into his passions on the balcony with the other’s wife.

izmenaThe director deliberately takes us for a ride, offering in a natural manner both quite authentic, normal explanations for the two lovers’ deaths as well as introducing a possible detective turn into the same plot. This blend leads us to false assumptions, leaving us—deprived of the explanations we assumed to be right—only with the comprehension of our weakness both before the sweetness of temptation and the inevitability of retribution for irresponsible pleasure through sin.

It is interesting that Serebrennikov’s fans are least inclined to see in his art any moralization about sinfulness: on the contrary. Opponents of his work accuse him of lifting all taboos, of showing too frankly the sinful and dirty, vulgar platitude, etc. As the representation of the darker sides of life—not to say the darkness of life—is always exquisite and truthfully refined, he is suspected of an excessive attachment to the forces of evil. From this dualism stems the confusion among his fans over the film Yuriev Day (Iur’ev den’), which stands apart in his oeuvre. The ending of the film puzzled his admirers because of its spiritual morality and was subjected to numerous readings. Although it seems to me that the inexpressible pleasure of the sharpness of the scenic or screen image expressing ruthlessness in its direct and even bilious vision of our awful life does not at all cancel out the dramatic experience.

Intentionally incorporated in the film is the confusion over the betrayal, complicated for the Russian spectator by a different psychological reality that results from the play of the foreign guest actors in the two lead roles: the German actress Franziska Petri and the Serbian actor Dejan Lilić. Serebrennikov needed them to cool the habitual, everyday behavior of “one’s own,” i.e. known characters, who could enact a Russian family drama. To cool the familiar family arguments, shifting the register to a more constrained, emotionally cold manner of performance, alienating themselves from the drama of everyday life towards a parable played by psychologically average, unnamed European types called HE and SHE, or HUSBAND and WIFE. At last, Serebrennikov’s film presents rather European and universal characters of Adam and Eve, trying all the dangers of the apple of temptation, languishing for the destructiveness of pleasure, weighed down by suffering, jealousy and revenge. The excellent, bewitching skills of the foreign, mysterious strangers are given a voice by Russian actors.

izmenaRight at the beginning of film, a healthy and cheerful man visits a woman cardiologist for a prophylactic, medical check-up; he will leave her as a sick man: figuratively speaking, with a broken heart. It is she, the doctor and prospective healer of cardiac deficiencies (an ambiguity built in from the very beginning!) who informs the patient with constrained coldness that his wife betrays him with her husband. The “diagnosis” is a fatal verdict for a recently healthy man, which renders on his cardiogram a straight line. Having left the building and gone out into the street, still shaken by the news, the man almost becomes the victim of a car crash at a bus stop.

Then, if we follow the external events, the deceived spouses form a strong tandem until the film’s end. First, each of them tries in their own way to look straight into the eyes of the partner, convinced of the senselessness of the exercise. Then they try to betray each other with the betrayed parties, but without any pleasure. Then they become, together and at the same time, widowers when the spouses together fall from the balcony, naked, in an impulse of passion. Further they are derisively connected by a loose string during the identification of the corpses and during the simultaneous funeral of the spouses and deceased lovers, only to leave in the hope of forgetting the former misfortunes.

Although they leave in a special and essentially unusual way on which the director insists, finally taking the plot from the everyday family story to a general philosophical level, reflecting on fate as a choice in the presence and absence of will. Having buried their spouses, He follows Her to continue the relationship. But She no longer needs him and is struck by grief, asking him to leave her forever. Betrayal may be called a paraphrase of Scenes from a Marriage (Scener ur ett äktenskap, 1973) by Ingmar Bergman—if Serebrennikov had followed the deep, individual psychologism of that film. Yet his film demands a different intonation to achieve greater generalization.

izmenaThe often strong emotional experience of the characters is expressed through the surrounding space: downpours, darkness, gusts of wind, an immovable calm, the silence of architectural spaces, the danger of indifferent landscapes. How did Shakespeare put it? “Blow, winds!” Entirely obvious is the director’s intention to translate an everyday story into a parable when She, leaving Him forever, runs across a grove into a wood, her face whipped by the branches, first autumnal and then wintry; under her feet the foliage rustles in different ways: first there are fallen leaves, then wet leaves that are already strewn lightly, then frozen foliage. Here the transition to another metaphorical space and conditional time has been carefully prepared by the director. In the parameters of the parable the heroine’s intention to start a new life requires the effort of a snake to shed her old skin and acquire a new one, which is laid out for her in the wood, still dead and covered in hoar. Having made her discovery, she strips naked, and puts on some rags. She warms them up and gives them shape, straightening her hair that has become disheveled during the run, slowing down her pace and changing in these clothes into a new, elegant woman as she emerges onto the road and goes towards the car where her new husband awaits her.

In this new space, separated by several years from the sad past, during a stop at a gas station (what happens accidentally in a life where “fate is groping behind us”?) once again two happily married couples meet. Or are they the same He and She, now burdened by new families, who are destined to go together through precisely the same violent bursts of passion that once struck them—the late spouses—so painfully. Everything that had once been and has passed is reconstructed as if in a mirror and is reflected not only in their fate, but also in the destiny of their relatives. The new burst of passion again will have to be paid for, this time by His premature death from a heart attack.

izmenaThe passions investigated by Serebrennikov are irresponsible and similar to a disease, accompanied by jealousy and revenge, together defining those unexpected breaks of “fate” which, according to Arsenii Tarkovskii, “gropes after” its victims, “like an insane man with a razor in his hand” (“First Dates”). The passion investigated is at its height and in a pure condition, and actually defines the killing vector of fate, making us recollect the evangelical warning about the sad purpose of those who bring temptation to the world. The passion which is undividedly seizing man devastates all external living space, becoming a dangerous medium that brings new, unexpectedly dangerous figures with its destiny, confusing all the senses.

For this reason, and in spite of the fact that the film’s action unfolds in Moscow, the director deliberately films the city in an entirely unrecognizable fashion: the iron-concrete and glass construction of the outskirts have no characteristic local attributes. Also alienated from heroes is nature, which surrounds the new buildings and boasts an unfriendly beauty, indifferent and painted in autumn colors, dazzling in its Scandinavian coldness. The only object that dramatically and derisively brings this external space of unfriendly, deserted beauty to life is the modern sculpture of a deer. The skeleton of the noble animal is created in a stylized geometrical manner, but its branchy horns remain realistic, almost too alive for the imagination of the deceived husband, who is obsessed with an obvious association.

The monochrome, watercolor, pale images create the sensation of emptiness, uniting the cold architecture with a withering autumnal landscape, the hospital and the cheerless hotel where the lovers meet. Everything around is accidental, standard and insignificant, steeped in the passionate experience of fate which has been experienced like an illness with a possibly fatal outcome.

Accenting thus only the functional necessity of space, the director immerses the average European viewer in an average, modern, faceless architecture, such as the hospital, the hotel, the protagonists’ apartment or country house. The concrete designs, the walls and steps, the roads and bridges become an absolutely alienated place, which does not interest them at all. In precisely the same way they are not pleased by the park landscape in autumn colors.

There is nothing characteristic or memorable except for the passionate, strained state of the main characters, who are indifferent to the world around them in the same way as the world is indifferent to their passions. All the tension, fusing mind and soul, is concentrated inside the relationships of the two married couples. The tension snaps in the alienated, sterile, and cold spaces that remain unnoticed by them, like an operating theatre.

izmenaIn Serebrennikov’s new film everything circles around the sin that runs through our life, and our powerlessness to resist the delusion of passion. Although at the end a bitter sarcasm can be heard distinctly, insisting with the plot on the inevitability of that sad ending which accompanies temptation—especially when this ending or retribution for the sin—comes not from the knife of a jealous or trustful Othello, but from the awkward fall from a balcony or an untimely heart attack that punishes the traitors in their politically correct European destiny. The protagonists of Betrayal do not challenge this fate, and they make no attempt to overcome the frightening reality through their own, strong-willed effort, as was the case in Yuriev Day. The filmmaker’s complex interpretation of events in Betrayal harbors the same bitter irony, which determined in full the damning and poisonous portrayal of our time in another of Serebrennikov’s films: Playing the Victim (Izobrazhaia zhertvu). 

Serebrennikov here takes the next step in the artistic assimilation of an intimate, focused research of human space outlined by the temptation that tears away any attributes of simple everyday life with its basic responsibilities. Such research required from the filmmaker, visibly engaged with the object of research, to distance himself and evaluate the consequences with the cold objectivity of a stranger. In this dual observation of the plot lies the director’s special handwriting or style. He is too contemporary and analytical to surrender just to an objective, simple experience. Accepting the author’s interpretation, who concentrated on the attractiveness of the corporal sin doubly paid by the protagonists’ life, we strangely sympathize not so much with them as we are horrified by own helplessness.

In terms of the intensity of experience with the characters of forbidden inwardness passion, Betrayal is closer to Bergman’s The Silence (Tystnaden, 1963) than Scenes from a Marriage—in God’s abandonment. His question addressed to Her whether she will read a burial service for her husband who left this world during a moment of lechery meets her nervous laughter: “it won’t help him any more!”—even if the experience that has so painfully wounded both of them does not prevent them from going through a mirror experience, falling into the same trap of mutual passion, like an infectious disease that has caught on human kind. So, if Bergman’s heroes are discouraged by God’s silence, Serebrennikov’s heroes surrender to the paradoxical reality in an atmosphere shrouded by Hitchcock’s darkness.

izmenaSome irony can be seen in the fact that sin and temptation enter the protagonist’s life not from the wife who betrays him, but from the woman who is deceived by her husband and who informs him of their common dilemma, thus twisting a new plot into his life. The past has fallen into nonexistence, and all reference points in life have suddenly become mixed up in the vindictive satisfaction of the strange doctor in a skirt, driving off from the hospital in a service bus with an impenetrable, mysterious, semi-expressive smile. Her vindication has begun. The strange, fine face of the remarkable German actress is deployed in an especially thoughtful way and with a dual meaning. Now the matrimonial quadrangle has changed its configuration: it is connected by other strings of betrayal of painfully ambiguous relationships. From this moment onward any movement and any word exists for the four spouses in two absolutely different spaces and contexts.

The ambiguity that has lodged itself between them will be perceived from this moment not so much dramatically as curiously ridiculous. The persuasive concentration of the heroes on a single idea is emphasized through the silent space presented in a geometrical and aesthetically pure image, free of everyday signs—if we take exception of such markers as important intimate accessories of the objects of passion, such as bras, tights, or a shaver. For the rest, the faceless interiors of the hospital give way to the same faceless interiors of hotels and apartments where the deceived spouses pine or thoughtlessly enthusiastic lovers enjoy sex.

Once the basic conflict has been defined, the protagonists are involved in rotating actions, ambiguous in their meaning. This super-meaning is defined through springs that are unknown to us—springs of mystical predetermination. Feeling the relevance of this internal movement launched by sin and hidden from the eye, Serebrennikov cools the external drama of the events by irony, positioning his parable about the sweetness of sin between melodrama, psychoanalysis and a detective story, all tied together in the final assessment.

izmenaIn the context of the film’s basic idea, the most important and ambiguous is the paradoxical character of the heroine given to the remarkable German actress with her a strange and fine appearance. The actress plays not only the woman humiliated by jealousy, but also the fatal avenger, alongside whom the hero seems almost like an innocent child. He is simpler and more direct than her regal and deeply hidden vindictive grief. The apple of discord of sharp passions is deliberately given to the willful hands of the humiliated woman. A warrior is hiding behind a half-smile, a half-squint, half-femininity and half-courage, who informs Him that the female heart is surrounded by fat and therefore much stronger than a man’s, because it is the woman who has to give birth. Yet this woman, maybe thirsting subconsciously for bloody revenge, is sterile, and therefore seems irresponsible in her actions. Behind her some devilish-victorious streak can be felt that entices the hero into the final trap, and which slips away after his death.

The new meeting of the once deceived spouses in the pool with its “rejuvenating” water expressively shows her sliding into the water as an attractive undine, while he—having lost his head—dives under her like an energetically recharged torpedo. The image of space, reflecting characters in the “rejuvenating” water of the swimming pool, enchants with unexpected beauty and dangerous performativity, beyond the limits of our reality. 

Against the background of such a heroine the man seems less controversial and more driven to sex by his new partner, who attracts and bewitches him through revenge and passion, whereas he can hardly keep up, paying eventually with his life. There is a certain cynicism, a fatal sneer that the lover of a cardiologist, who listens to heart beats, dies from a heart attack. In the director’s interpretation the woman is more suited for survival and more dangerous and inventive than the man. The woman is a siren: she is fate’s trap “with a razor in hand” which actually appears in hands of the heroine.

izmenaUnraveling the plotlines of the film we may speak about the sufferings of a woman deceived by her husband, forcing another man—the victim of the same betrayal—to suffer beside her. We may speak about the masochistic passions of the heroine to mill over and reconsider all the details of her relationship with her beloved husband and his mistress. We may speak about her unquenched passions and the unfortunate, childish and awkward attempt of the deceived parties to betray their passionately loved spouses at the same hotel, in a similar room one floor up. We may speak about the accidental nature of the severe turn of their revenge, which caused the ridiculous fall of the happy lovers from a balcony at the height of their passion. The reason of their fall remains unclear, though He tries to take the blame. Nevertheless, the dramatic fall preceded by a passionate, erotic experience is shifted to the side as ridiculous and absurd when we see from the balcony, following the gaze of the cleaner, the two naked bodies spread on the ground, forever frozen in a last embrace.

As is typical for Serebrennikov, the sympathy for the victims is mixed with a sneer. The shameless situation is ridiculous, compelling the newly-made widowers to go together first to the morgue to identify the bodies, then to the police, where the policewoman is unwilling to give the permission for the funeral to two people who were at the same hotel, calling them lovers before they even leave the office. Irony persists also in the formally mournful, parallel funerals, the blessed corpses extending a last derisive smile from their coffins, as if they had triumphed over the living with the passions they indulged in before death.

izmenaSerebrennikov is not sentimental. His truth is paradoxical, but the experiences of the heroes remain ambiguous. Under the externally serious restraint of the narration there lies an uncheerful smile or a sneer which goes beyond dramatism. The filmmaker’s grotesque attitude accompanies both the events and the behavior of the characters. From intolerable, heartbreaking humiliation the heroine tries to drown her scream by putting soil in her mouth. And realizing the ridiculous death of her spouse and the irretrievable past that he annihilated, she—in a last attempt of tenderness—tastes the smell of his bristle as if it were a part of him that is still alive. Then she resolutely parts with him, covering herself—cheeks and chest—in his shaving foam, frantically removing it with his razor and shaving off her sick skin—of the common drama of their past. One has to trust the director to go through the full multiplicity of meaning of this scene, following the brilliant lines of Arsenii Tarkovskii, who said: “Behind us our fate was groping, like an insane man with a razor in his hand” (“First Dates”). Even more so as the German actress with her golden hair, the eyes of a fox and a mysterious impenetrable look reminds so much of Kim Novak.

The secret vindictive plan of an unsatisfied and offended woman moves also the man’s part: the hero is jealous of another passion. He makes a powerless attempt at a new self-identification when he declares his guilt for the lovers’ fall. We do not learn the true reason of disastrous accident, but it is obvious that a female hand is involved here. She, the dangerous warrior, “with a razor in hand,” has in a fatal sense doubled the spiral wound up through her burning jealousy. In this film only the intensity of the erotic experience is authentic: dreaming of such an experience the policewoman tears up the hero’s confession in exchange for a kiss—on the mouth.

The style in which Serebrennikov tells about the burning passions could be compared to the cold edge of a sharp knife: when the height of passion, fraught with the inevitable end, feels like a Scandinavian chill. As Halldór Laxness wrote: “There is nothing more distant from each other than love and dream. But there is nothing is closer to each other than love and death.” As we know, extreme temperatures are equally terrible for survival.

Therefore the ending of the film is so tragic: it is a gloomy spectacle. The heroine’s final departure after the premature death of her lover is via a staircase: she descends into darkness, as if into a dissolve. At the same time a musical piece of amazing power gains in strength and leads to the final credits of the film. The flickering and slipping rhythm of the screen here is like a shy, thread-like palpitation that dissolves before rising to the highest pitch that almost hurts the ear, freezing at its peak to break into silence... which, as we know, comes further...

Translated by Birgit Beumers

Olga Surkova

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Betrayal, Russia, 2012
Director: Kirill Serebrennikov
Script: Kirill Serebrennikov, Natal'ia Nazarova
DoP: Oleg Lukichev
Cast: Franziska Petri, Dejan Lilić, Albina Djanabaeva, Artūrs Skrastiņš, Andrei Shchetinin.
Production Design: Irina Grazhdankina
Producer: Sabina Eremeeva
Production: Studio SLON

Kirill Serebrennikov: Betrayal (Izmena, 2012)

reviewed by Olga Surkova © 2013

Updated: 02 Jan 13