Issue 58 (2017)

Boris Khlebnikov: Arrhythmia (Aritmiia, 2017)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2017

aritmiaIt did not really come as a surprise when Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia won the main prize at this year’s Kinotavr. Apart from Andrei Zviagintsev’s Loveless (Neliubov’), which had already competed at Cannes and could not run in the competition at Kinotavr because of a conflict of interest (Aleksandr Rodnianskii is the producer of both the fest and the film) there was no real contender. Neither did it surprise that Arrhythmia went on to compete in Karlovy Vary, where Aleksandr Iatsenko took the award for Best Actor. Everything in the film, it seems, hinges on the acting performance Aleksandr Iatsenko as the medical doctor Oleg, yet he is considered in this award (and much of the reviews) as separate from his acting partner Irina Gorbacheva (who plays his wife Katia). And is there really nothing here beyond the acting in this film?

Reviews in the international film press focus on the film’s accessibility (in difference from many other Russian films) for an international audience, pointing at the cross between a melodrama exploring the personal relationship of a couple with an emergency room medical drama. Indeed, that aspect of the film is most likely what the average viewer would be able to recognize: stress at work and at home, the often impossible demands of contemporary management systems, the inhumane working hours, the crammed living conditions for junior doctors with a miserable pay and one night shift after another.

A forensic dissection of a medical marriage in crisis, Arrhythmia takes place in contemporary Russia, but it could equally be set anywhere where doctors and paramedics struggle to maintain their humanity under life-or-death work pressures. (Dalton 2017)

The lack of specificity in the location and the universality of the narrative may well open the film’s potential on an international market (and it has already been acquired by Indie Sales, Paris) and this is precisely what makes the film stand apart from the average Russian product. But can we really stop at the level of the love story, which is indeed authentically and believably told, classically and so traditionally that the spectator sides unwillingly with the male protagonist—highlighting the male perspective forged by a strong directorial hand and a powerful performance, and almost marginalizing the wife—a higher qualified doctor, from a medical family, who earns more and is socially more secure, allowing Oleg to withdraw into the role of a victim: she puts an end to their relationship, he is the one who is rejected by his wife, ostracized by her family (at the father-in-law’s birthday party), driven into heavy drinking and reprimanded at work. We have at work here the classical victim-complex that marks (according to sociologist Lev Gudkov, 2004) the Russian national character. It is precisely this bias towards the male protagonist that irritates, confuses, and maybe undermines the simple narrative of a relationship drama in a medical setting for this viewer.

aritmiaOleg, a thirty-year old doctor in the emergency services, does his job with passion and inspiration, comically deluding patients who call the emergency service because they want attention, human contact, or just some form of care. Oleg is capable of prescribing “magic pills” for feigned illnesses, but also of making tough decisions when patients need to get hospital care and no treatment or no bed is available. He is equally capable of ignoring management instructions that make no sense, and, worse—put lives at risk. His decisions do not always elicit positive responses—from patients, from his ambulance driver, from his colleagues or from his boss. And, like any doctor, he may be saving a patient one moment, and losing another elsewhere. Yet whether he is right or wrong is not really the issue; neither is the question whether he is to blame for the collapse of his marriage. He and his wife have jobs that require shift work, and building a family is certainly no easy task, whatever their relationship. Yet all these deliberations about the work situation, their personal circumstances, and their future are quite universal. They could happen anywhere.

Where so many films from this region that make it onto the international stage function as triage for the open wounds of national social ills, Khlebnikov’s approachable movie takes contemporary urban Russia as its backdrop rather than its subject — instead treating the chronic condition that is modern life, which knows no borders. (Kiang 2017)

The story is episodic, developing along Oleg’s call-outs on the emergency vehicle. One medical episode is followed by a scene at the hospital, where Katia’s and Oleg’s world intersect; and then there may be a domestic scene, a space where the couple no longer share a common space but fight for their “territory”. Khlebnikov here inverses the domestic and professional spaces, replacing private with professional life: they can share the workspace but not the home. None of this is new: it is the acting of a man who gives everything for his job but does not fit into the norms of the management, or society, or family and is ultimately an outcast, a victim, pitied but not truly loved by his wife, who appears so much stronger, coping with requirements at work, expectations of her parents and her husband, as well as their social circle. The compassion (and viewer attention) that focuses on Oleg as the main character is a biased, male perspective and partly due to the fact that maybe we get no insight into Katia’s character. Moreover, Katia does not change: she has already emotionally parted from her husband at the film’s beginning, yet goes through routines of compassion, care, concern, and also sex. Meanwhile, Oleg’s emotional confusion grows and is amplified through a sense of insecurity instilled by humiliation from his manager and by patients, and relying only on his conscience to tell him he has done the right thing. There is only a fragile happy ending for the couple of Katia and Oleg, as Stephen Dalton perceptively comments in his review: 

The patchwork plot is inevitably episodic and a little repetitive, with a few too many scenes that add nothing to the drama besides showing how relationship breakups are often jagged, indecisive, cyclical affairs. Without getting into spoilers, Khlebnikov also serves up a glib resolution that feels a little too sweet and neat considering the vodka-soaked, blood-drenched carnage that preceded it. The wound has been healed for now, but it is hard to believe the stitches will hold. (Dalton 2017)

aritmiaBesides the unresolved and unresolvable incompatibility of work and private life, of expectations and real achievements, and of diverging ambitions of husband and wife, Khlebnikov is also concerned with social issues in the clash of a performance-driven work management vs. humanistic concerns that should, we may think be a top priority for the medical profession. The immobility, or stagnation of progress, that results from this clash is encapsulated in one central and powerful image, metaphorically summarizing the crux of modern life. This is not the heartbeat, the arrhythmia that has infected the relationship between Oleg and Katia, making their hearts beat either too slow or too fast, but the image of the medical help (the ambulance vehicle) stuck in traffic, isolated from patients, the car soiled by violent drunks and bums. The ambulance with life support machines cannot get through to the injured child who requires treatment with special equipment; on a another occasion, Oleg cannot leave one patient alone without the risk of suffocation, and cannot get to another patient in time; at another stage, he and his colleague have to clean the entire vehicle after picking up several seriously injured and bleeding victims of street crime; in yet another scene, the ambulance cuts across a cycle path to get around a road blockage; and in the final image, the ambulance is, as so often, stuck in a traffic jam, until Oleg clears the road to allow the vehicle to get through. The clogged arteries that cause blood clots to be lethally stuck are literally rendered as the road of the city—not Moscow, not St Petersburg, but the provincial city of Yaroslavl. The infarctation, caused by blocked arteries, is endemic and no longer restricted to the capital. The lack of communication—literal and physical, is spreading and causing relationships to collapse, lives to be risked, and people to be misunderstood, mismanaged, misheard. This image of the heart that stops pulsating, the artery that needs to be unblocked is single truly positive ending to the film.

Birgit Beumers

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Works Cited

Dalton, Stephen. 2017. “'Arrhythmia' ('Aritmiya'): Film Review. Karlovy Vary 2017.” Hollywood Reporter, 13 July.

Gudkov, Lev. 2004. “Kompleks ‘zhertvy’,” in Negativnaia identichnost’, Moscow: Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 2004, pp. 83-120.

Kiang, Jessica. 2017. “Karlovy Vary Film Review: ‘Arrhythmia’.” Variety, 4 July.


Arrhythmia, Russia 2017
Color, 1920х1080, Dolby Digital 5.1, 112 minutes
Director Boris Khlebnikov
Scriptwriters Nataliia Meshchaninova, Boris Khlebnikov
DoP Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Design Ol’ga Khlebnikova
Editing Ivan Lebedev, Ol’ga Batalova
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva, Nikolai Shraiber, Maksim Lagashkin
Producers Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Selianov
Production Film Company Mars Media, Film Company СТВ, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Distribution (RF) Film Company Mars Media

Boris Khlebnikov: Arrhythmia (Aritmiia, 2017)

reviewed by Birgit Beumers© 2017

Updated: 2017 14 Oct 17