Issue 60 (2018)

Kantemir Balagov: Closeness (Tesnota, 2017)

reviewed by Daria Ezerova© 2018

“Women Are the Heroes of Our Time”
(see Balagov in Smolina 2017)

“The world has yet to see such triumphs / It’s time to warm up for applause / From Cannes, our “Closeness” and our “Loveless” / Are bringing Russia their awards” (Bykov 2017). Such was Dmitrii Bykov’s poetic response to the success of Kantemir Balagov and Andrei Zviagintsev at the 70th Cannes Film Festival in 2017. The sentiment was shared by critics and viewers alike, but yet another achievement from Zviagintsev hardly surprised anyone. Balagov’s triumph, on the other hand, turned the debutant into an overnight sensation.

tesnotaSet in 1998, on the eve of the Second Chechen War, Closeness takes place in Nalchik, the capital of the Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. In the center of the film’s drama is Ilana (in a much praised performance by Dar’ia Zhovner), a tomboy misfit who lives in a conservative Jewish community and works as a mechanic in her father’s garage. Tragedy descends quietly and unexpectedly: on the night of his engagement, Ilana’s brother David and his fiancée Lea are kidnapped. The ransom is more than the family can pay and they seek the help of their community who only manage to collect half of the sum. A masterfully shot scene at the synagogue conjures haunting associations with Alan J. Pakula’ Sophie’s Choice (1982): the community has to choose which of the two hostages they will rescue. When they choose Lea, Ilana’s family falls into despair. Frustrated by her parents’ inaction, Ilana seeks solace in the arms of her burly Kabardinian boyfriend, Zalim. The family disapproves of their relationship, primarily on ethnic grounds: “he is not from your tribe,” but she sneaks out to a gas station where Zalim works. What follows is the film’s most intensely disturbing scene, where Zalim and Ilana watch snuff videos of terrorists cutting the throats of Russian soldiers (and in the film Balagov controversially uses original footage). When she returns, her parents tell her that they might be able to procure the sum to pay David’s ransom if she agrees to an arranged marriage. In an act of rebellion, Ilana has sex with Zalim, making the arranged marriage impossible. However, her would-be husband gives her the money nonetheless. At the end of the film it is Ilana who delivers the ransom and brings her brother home. The parents no longer consider Nalchik a safe place and decide to move to Voronezh, but both David and Ilana refuse to leave. As the car in which Ilana drives her parents away from the city breaks down somewhere in the mountains, the viewers are left with an open-ending: does Ilana join them? Do they turn back? And ultimately, is it ever possible to leave?

A native of Nalchik, Balagov is a student of Aleksandr Sokurov’s workshop at the Kabardino-Balkaria State University, the alma mater of such prominent recent debuts as Malika Musaeva and Mar’iana Kalmykova. Since 2011, Sokurov’s workshop has raised a number of young filmmakers, whose innovative vision and bold aesthetic choices have set them apart from the graduates of more conservative institutions, such as the State Film Institute VGIK in Moscow, and put them on the international film festival circuit. The success of Closeness—among other awards, it received the FIPRESCI prize in Cannes—is a tour de force of Sokurov’s disciples. The film’s exquisite cinematography is even more striking, considering that Balagov was only 26 when he shot it. His use of color—cobalt blue for Ilana and Zalim, emerald green for David and Lea—endow his images with an almost haptic, synesthetic quality. The montage of close-ups and the carefully crafted mise-en-scène amplify the feeling of smothering closeness. The framing intertitles—“My name is Kantemir Balagov. I’m Kabardinian and I was born in this city […] And I don’t know anything else about the life of these people”—practically turn the film into a cinematic example of oral history. The film’s formal sophistication is matched only by Balagov’s fearless and nuanced treatment of some of the more contentious topics in contemporary Russia.

tesnotaAny analysis of Closeness inevitably calls for a consideration of the film’s most shocking episode: the watching of snuff videos. Critics have remarked on the affinity between Balagov’s film and Aleksei Balabanov’s War (Voina, 2002): the latter re-enacts decapitations and also uses Timur Mazuraev’s “Jerusalem,” an extremist anti-Israel song that is banned in Russia. However, Closeness demonstrates greater morphological and thematic complexity than War. Before the snuff videos, Balagov’s film aspires to a Greek ideal of tragedy, as it were: the harrowing events (the kidnapping, the captivity) happen “behind the scenes,” with the action focusing on grief and inner torment. In other words, while Balabanov gut-punches his viewers right in the beginning, Balagov deconstructs the common trajectory of ever-increasing violence by introducing snuff videos in the middle of an art film in which otherwise no tragic events are shown. This makes the shock even more potent, almost unbearable, particularly because it is experienced through Ilana’s character.

The film’s original screenplay, co-authored by Artem Iarush and Balagov, did not have Ilana in it at all. In fact, there were two brothers—not a brother and a sister—in Ilana’s family. The last-minute decision to use a female lead attests to Balagov’s interest in the relationship between gender and subjectivity, and inflects the portrayal of the film’s central character. Ilana is presented as the Other on various levels: in her family, in her community, in her relationship with Zalim and his entourage. She is hiding her body under baggy stone-washed overalls, refuses to dance or cook, and ignores the mounting accusations of her unladylike behavior. “Women don’t behave this way,” is unambiguously presented as the worst possible upbraiding in Ilana’s world. However, behind her “one-of-the boys” bravado she hides a deep-seated insecurity of internalized misogyny: in her community, a woman’s role is secondary at best. Even for her own family, the hapless doe-eyed David will always be a blessing and she—a liability. When seen from this perspective, Ilana’s boyish panache and unisex clothing become something more than a teenage rebellion. They are a nearly subconscious attempt to escape the biological prison of her body, to act and look like a man. On a formal level, this is reflected in the choice of color scheme for Ilana. The cold, saturated blues usually associated with the male are appropriated to represent the woman, symbolizing love, passion, and vitality—an artistic decision reminiscent of the 2013 Cannes’ favorite, Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (La vie d’Adèle). When everything else fails, it is in her womanhood that Ilana finds empowerment. By losing her virginity—i.e. intentionally making herself “unmarriageable” and therefore insubordinate to the patriarchal hierarchy of her community—Ilana is finally heard and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Symbolically, the power shift is reflected in the last scene of smoking: following her confession (“I will screw every passerby,” she says and throws her blood-stained underwear on the table) Ilana no longer feels the need to sneak away for a cigarette and even offers one to her father.

tesnotaBalagov has had a long-standing interest in the portrayal of women: he was the cinematographer for Mar’iana Kalmykova’s short film She is Waiting (Ona zhdet, 2014). Also set in Kabardino-Balkaria, the film is a piercing, wordless story of a woman’s intimate wait for a meeting with her lover, for whose crimes she likely went to prison. Yet, Balagov’s exploration of gender in Closeness goes beyond the conservative Jewish community and the Caucasus. In recent years, the Russian public has seen the return of the images of motherhood and family that presented the role of women almost exclusively as that of “intergenerational transmitters of cultural traditions, customs, songs, cuisine, and, of course, the mother tongue” (Yuval-Davis 1997: 405). What started with isolated initiatives, such as the establishment the Day of Family, Love and Fidelity (Den’ sem’i, liubvi i vernosti, likely as an alternative to the “Western” Valentine’s Day) eventually regressed to conservative gender roles and extreme heteronormativity. Women got the short end of the stick as evidenced by the decriminalization of domestic violence in 2017, some months before Closeness premiered in Cannes. Seen from this perspective, Ilana’s character can be interpreted as a reflection on the position of women in contemporary Russia, revealing the critical angle of Balagov’s work.

But Ilana is alienated not only through her gender. There is a yet another level to her Otherness. She—along with most characters in the film—acts as a structuring absence in the discourse on Russia’s imperial ambition. Since the collapse of the USSR, ethnic and regional identities have reasserted themselves, but the process has been complicated by Russia’s ongoing tendency to see itself as an empire. This brought about military conflicts and the split identity of Russia’s ethnic minorities as shown by Balagov: Ilana family lives in an observant Jewish community, and yet the gate to their house is decorated with the Spasskaya Tower; her father is listening to songs in Kabardinian, which he does not speak, yet forbids Ilana to date Zalim. This specter of Russia’s colonial power lingers behind the reception of Closeness itself. In her interview with Balagov, Mariia Kuvshinova commented on the media attention he received by comparing the director to the heroine Kechiche’s Venus Noire (2010): “They bring you like an exotic creature from the colonies to be shown in a cage. You and your classmates from Sokurov’s workshop in Nalchik. [...] And the main theme is ‘Here’s a man from Nalchik. God, this is so exotic. Look, he’s speaking!’” (Kuvshinova 2017). But unlike Balagov, at the end of Closeness his “subaltern” heroine no longer speaks. The film’s epilogue thus becomes is a bold commentary on being the ultimate Other: having gone through so much and ultimately rescuing David, Ilana is left at the crossroads and without a voice, both literally and metaphorically.

Daria Ezerova
Yale U

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Works Cited

Bykov, Dmitrii. 2017. “Dve bedy: tesnota i nelubov’.” 30 May.

Kuvshinova, Mariia. 2017. ‘“Tesnota”: Mariia Kuvshinova beseduet s rezhiseerom Kantemirom Balagovym.” Afisha Daily. 26 July.

Smolina, Elena 2017. “Udush’e lubvi: discussiia s rezhisserom fil’ma “Tesnota.”’Interview with Kantemir Balagov. Snob. 31 July.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. “Gender and Nation (1993)” in Space, Gender, Knowledge: Feminist Readings, edited by Joanne P. Sharp and Linda McDowell, 403–408. London: Arnold.

Closeness, Russia, 2017
Color, 118 minutes
Director: Kantemir Balagov
Script: Kantemir Balagov, Anton Iarush
Cinematography: Artem Emel’ianov
Production Design: Aleksei Paderin
Costume Design: Lidia Krukova
Cast: Dar’ia Zhovner, Olga Dragunova, Artem Tsypin, Nazir Zhukov, Veniamin Kats
Producer: Aleksandr Sokurov, Nikolai Iankin
Production Company: “Primer Intonatsii” (Fond Aleksandra Sokurova), Lenfilm

Kantemir Balagov: Closeness (Tesnota, 2017)

reviewed by Daria Ezerova© 2018

Updated: 2018