Russian filmmaker Kantemir Balagov employs an unusual device near the beginning of his debut film, “Closeness,” one of the Un Certain Regard selections of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The director inserts himself into the proceedings via a handful of subtitles that clarify his identity (“My name is”) and say that what is to follow is ripped from the reality of the North Caucasus region of Russia in 1998. It is a pronouncement that hews closer to “Law and Order” than Russian formalism, and considering the pedigree of “Closeness” — 25-year-old Balagov apprenticed under Alexander Sokurov — the interjection is a bit of a head-scratcher. It is clear, however, that rather than paying homage to his mentor and other Russian masters of cinema, Balagov relies on his own impressive directorial impulses and Zhovner’s fearless lead performance to set “Closeness” apart from the other directorial debuts unspooling at Cannes.
Right from its opening Academy ratio frame, “Closeness” dares the audience to follow protagonist Ilana (Darya Zhovner) in all her contradictions. Closer in spirit to the social realist cinema of the Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne or Cristian Mungiu, “Closeness” layers in a new moral dilemma any time that the previous one begins to be disentangled. The backdrop is one of religious tension in the city of Nalchik: between the insular Jewish community to which Ilana and her family belong, and the predominantly Muslim Kabardian population. The first moment of conflict arrives when Ilana’s brother David (Veniamin Kats) and his newly-minted fiancée have been kidnapped; the community is able to muster the ransom money for one of the victims but not both. At every subsequent turn, the family’s solution is to offer up our heroine and deprive her of agency, in one case effectively auctioning her off in an arranged marriage.
Ilana presents two faces to the world: her own and the stencil of a roaring lion on her signature denim jacket. The consequence of the social realist style that Balagov employs is a reliance on over-the-shoulder shots, and it only serves to play up the character’s tenacity and conviction with the image of the jungle cat so often in the frame. Zhovner is mesmerizing in the role, regardless of whether she is defying her family or partying with her Karbardian boyfriend (an antagonistic choice, along with her tomboy sense of fashion, that suggests she has always been this brazen). That isn’t to say the character is disloyal, and her devotion to her family — which is always convincing, even when contradictory — is palpable throughout “Closeness.”
Balagov brings a striking visual style to his first film, particularly through the use of the boxy 1.33:1 Academy aspect ratio to metaphorically fence in his characters (the Russian title “Tesnota” translates more accurately to narrowness or constriction). This claustrophobia extends beyond the film’s frame and into the mise en scène with arguments playing out into cramped apartments. Light in “Closeness” becomes a kind of motif, often painting the image in color as it filters in through yellow curtains or stained glass windows. While perhaps evocative of the play on illumination that Andrei Tarkovsky is famed for, the aesthetic strategy is as striking as it is functional for the story that the director is trying to tell.
At the heart of “Closeness” is a disquieting, contentious succession of images which also drove a handful of audience members to the exits. In one take, a series of clips of torture and execution play on a tube TV in close-up in the midst of a party. It is an abstraction of the violence at the periphery of Ilana and co.’s lives, rendered uncanny by the pixels of the CRT television and leading the viewer to squint through blotches of color to make out the mutilated corpses they compose. It’s an uneasy — and ethically dubious — sight to hang over the rest of the film.
With primary conflict in “Closeness” solved a great deal in advance of the ending, Balagov seems to be unable to let go of his characters. Despite enriching the relationship between the family members, this clinginess also serves to diminish the impact of some striking compositions and sustained takes that read as final shots. While perhaps true in spirit to Ilana’s unpredictability and headstrong nature, this narrative aimlessness is a rare instance when Balagov brandishes his inexperience as a director. Thankfully, the final moment — an embrace between the protagonist and her mother — still rings emotionally true.
Every year at Cannes, a handful of debuts seem on the bubble of skipping the queue, so to speak, and breaking directly into the Competition. Two years ago, “Son of Saul” accomplished that feat and became the fete of the festival. Otherwise, the chatter on the Croisette is dominated by complaints of why such-and-such film didn’t compete for the Palme d’Or. In interviews, the artistic directors of both the Critic’s Week and the Directors’ Fortnight sidebars acknowledge chasing after a Russian film heavily implied to be “Closeness.” It is clear why — with his arresting debut, Balagov seems to be on the cusp of greatness, all the more effective for the way he draws upon his personal history to craft unforgettable images. [B+]