On paper, “DAU. Natashais the first film in a franchise that gives the Marvel Cinematic Universe a run for its money. But calling the “Dau” film series a franchise is a bastardization of Russian director Ilya Khrzhanovsky’s intent as genuinely as it is a misnomer for its cultural identity. No one will flock to midnight screenings for the next chapter of “Dau,” and that’s not because of the circumstances. If 2020 had blossomed into a vivacious April free of social restrictions, ‘Natasha’ still would not be coming to a theater near you. It’s too unwieldy, too bleak to corral the realm of pop art.

The “Dau” project is Khrzhanovsky’s dream of grandeur, his hulking multimedia art installation that aims to capture the life and times of Lev Landau (aka, “Dau”), the Nobel Prize-winning theoretical physicist kingpin of the Soviet scientific research institute in Moscow from 1937 to 1962. As the director, Khrzhanovsky negotiated a contract that “gave him final cut, no deadline, and the ability to fire anyone without explanation,” according to GQ. So, in 2006, Khrzhanovsky’s crew reconstructed an exact replica of the Moscow institute, and from 2009-2011 they filmed over 700 hours of life lived. 400 principal actors and over 10,000 non-professional extras were hired to live in character at the institute (some for years) in a “Synecdoche, New York“-esque way.

In other words, on set, there was no film being shot; rather, “experiments” were “documented.” Those on set simply lived their lives 24/7, eating, sleeping, and working with rigid rules in place to maintain historical accuracy, and thus, immersion. Referring to contemporary society yielded a $125 fine (and, naturally, many-a-resignation), sentries were placed at entrances to ensure no one entered the institute with modern clothing, or a contemporary haircut, or a 21st-century attitude. The institute had its own currency that everyone actually used to live. Khrzhanovsky was a panopticon, an oppressive, all-seeing eye drifting about set (in costume and spirit, like everyone else), inspiring Soviet-level snitching in fear of firing.

In actuality, the “Dau” franchise belongs in conversation with the Infinite Jests, My Struggles, and In Search of Lost Times of cinema—those gargantuan projects whose ambition is so great that they seek to evolve the medium, brave the dark of the artistic unknown, test human limits, or, at the very least, create something truly and unforgettably novel. The occasional attempt has been a long-standing tradition in film. From the elephantine 1914 Italian production of “Cabiria” to Jacques Rivette’s intertwined ode to Balzac in “Out 1” to Masaki Kobayashi’s adaptation of a six-part novel in “The Human Condition” to Claude Lanzmann’s 11-year dedication to meticulously collecting and preserving the stories of Holocaust survivors that became “Shoah.”

It should come as no shock that the first of the fourteen films in the “Dau” project is wildly provocative. It’s the product of a strictly regimented production about free love (Landau rang in the Haight-Ashbury ethic of sexual freedom long before it was hip. What we now call an open marriage, Landau once coined a “spousal nonaggression act.”) and scientific experimentation in the Soviet Union. But it’s surprising that Landau isn’t even featured in “DAU. Natasha.”

The film follows Natasha (Natalia Berezhnaya) and Olga (Olga Shkabarnya), the two women that run the canteen at the institute. Natasha is middle-aged and in charge, but Olga is a less than ideal employee. The static prospect of customers (e.g., scientists, soldiers, and their families) and duty offer them little excitement in life. They are depression incarnate. But the two women trudge on. They flirt aggressively with the officers when they can, but it’s unclear as to whether they do so in order to meet expectations set for them as playthings in a male-dominated military zone, or to feel alive by playing with fire, in a sense. Either way, their motivations boil down to survival.

When they’re not serving customers, they’re loping in mundanity in the canteen, half-chatting, half-arguing, partly because they’re plastered and partly because they’re miserable. The conversation will start with a simple request—e.g., Natasha asks Olga to clean the floors, Olga says she’ll do it tomorrow—and transform into a philosophical conversation about the nature of romance. In the process, they virulently wrestle, drop enough bitter verbal bombs to warrant a rap battle, chain smoke cigarettes, and swill their weight in booze. Anything jovial quickly descends to caustic in a matter of seconds. It’s impossible to tell whether they hate each other or they’re more like siblings.

In Russian fashion, the mood is incredibly drab. This is the kind of place where people ash their cigarettes on the floor as they crack under the pressure of emotional and psychological suffocation. It’s the kind of place where people believe happiness is something you pull out of the mud. Colors range from grey to brown. The canteen menu is relatively sparse—lots of fish, it seems, but not much of anything else. Beer, wine, and vodka, however, are abundant. The two women alone guzzle more alcohol than Martha and George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Throw the men’s libations in and we might have a Guinness World Record for drinks consumed on screen. As a result, everyone is wasted all the time and not in a silly, flattering Hollywood vein. This is sloppy drunk at its ugliest.

Sloppy drunk turns into sloppy sex, the kind of which is anything but sexy. It’s graphic, featuring all but an extended close-up on penetration. The sex comes after a long, delightful night spent with French officers in the canteen. But the next day, Natasha is called into the dreaded experimentation room by a Soviet investigator named Azhippo (Vladimir Azhippo), whose presence is akin to a malignant tumor, and the already storied vulgarity of the Dau franchise floods the rest of the film.

The initial reaction to something as loose as the Dau project is bewilderment. The slow pace creates so much room for thought that you can find yourself interrogating the production. Sometimes, it’s titillating to think that what you’ve just seen unfolded unprompted, in real-time. Other times, it seems vitriolic and unethical. “Was that slap across the face improvised? It looked painful. That man weighs 100 pounds more than she does. Did she agree to that? Is she actually weeping?” Wondering about the complexion of these performances is natural when considering the fact that almost everyone in the Dau project, the principal cast included, was a non-actor, and their “acting” is very impressive.

There isn’t much to fault “DAU. Natasha” for from a technical perspective. Quite the opposite. Cinematographer Jürgen Jürges took home a Silver Bear prize in Berlin for his cinematography at the film’s Berlinale premiere, and rightfully so. For how colorless the film is, he makes the imagery pop with vivacity. Likewise, every aspect of production—costume, make-up, “set design,” performance, direction, et al—is executed at the highest level.

The film’s main issue is its runtime (the second installment is triple the length of this one, mind you), which could be slashed by a hefty forty minutes and only help. But, expecting Khrzhanovskiy to take a page out of Pawel Pawlikowski’s book at any point over the following thirteen films is likely futile. Protracted slow burns seem to be exactly what Khrzhanovskiy was going for.

Ambiguity reigns when interpreting “Natasha” from a literary perspective. The smothering oppression of misogyny and human experimentation through totalitarian means comes through clearly. The film as a whole is remarkably upsetting, even when the violence on screen is merely emotional. Perhaps, Khrzhanovskiy wants us to consider the ways in which we cohabitate with corruption even when we oppose it. Or, maybe he wants to make sure we don’t forget about the atrocities of history. Regardless, there’s much of the human experience to mine in this measured, intimate portrayal of a woman caught in misery. [B]