The title of Angelina Nikonova’s engrossing and sometimes enraging debut feature refers to a setting on a camera that allows one to take good-looking photos at night with the aid of a flash and a higher exposure time. The film has little to do with photography, however, beyond one scene where its heroine, Marina (Olga Dihovichnaya), buys a camera off a bum, who especially highlights its twilight-portrait capability in trying to sell it. No, the real “twilight portrait” of this film is more metaphorical in nature, in form and content.
First, though, one should know what to expect going into this film—and really, if you’ve seen other recent Russian films like My Joy and Cargo 200, you’ll know what kind of world Nikonova pulls you into, because it’s basically the same: a society in which self-interest and a marked lack of human empathy rule the day. Even the stray figure who does show compassionate impulses eventually finds him or herself enduring a lot of shit on the road to eventual disillusionment. Witness, for instance, Georgi’s descent from compassionate truck driver to homicidal maniac in My Joy and how director Sergei Loznitsa captures the whole sad, sordid trajectory in brilliantly ruthless long takes that observe this humanist dead zone with a cold eye and a measure of pitch-black humor.
By contrast, at the beginning of Twilight Portrait, Marina is already in a disillusioned state: bored by her privileged lifestyle; tired of her well-meaning husband, Ilusha (Roman Merinov); weary of her once-fulfilling job as a social worker. Some will feel something less than complete sympathy for a self-pitying character like this, and to be sure, Marina herself isn’t always an easy character to warm to or even to sympathize with; more often than not, she’s steely to the point of arrogance. And yet, considering the apathy and selfishness on display around her that Nikonova takes near-sadistic pains to emphasize, one can’t fail to get an idea as to why she’s become so jaded.
To her friend Tani (Anna Ageeva) she admits that, far from “caring too much” about her clients, she has come to “care less and less,” seeing nothing but never-ending cycles of abuse. But, beyond what she admits to friends and loved ones, Nikonova shows us multiple instances of the rotten environment Marina deals with every day. Within the first 15 minutes of the film, we witness, among other events, a prostitute getting raped while two others stand idly by; Marina dealing with a gloatingly unprofessional waitress at a local restaurant; two drive-by thieves swiping her purse while she struggles, broken heel and all, to flag down a ride to get back home. For Marina, however, that’s only the beginning of her nightmare: When the same three cops from the opening scene of the film pick her up, she becomes their latest victim.
Much of the rest of Twilight Portrait deals with the emotional fallout from her rape at the hands of those law-enforcement officers, and her resulting behavior inspires both pity and perplexity in equal measure. The film’s depiction of the depression that initially envelops her is, in some ways, even more powerful than Lars von Trier’s dramatization of depression in Melancholia; like Justine in that film, Marina eventually explodes in frustration and despair, most memorably at a surprise birthday party thrown for her. Then, one night at that local restaurant, she spots two of the cops involved in her rape and follows one of them, broken beer bottle in hand, into his apartment building. It seems as if she’s about to take violent revenge on him, until—well, until she goes down on him.
That’s hardly the only instance where Marina acts seemingly off-kilter, and part of the reason why this film eventually becomes so involving is because Nikonova—who co-wrote the screenplay with lead actress Dihovichnaya—stands back and allows us to observe her behavior at a nonjudgmental remove. We in the audience end up being, in a sense, psychological detectives, trying to figure out, based on the evidence presented to us, why she acts the way she does.
The evidence, in this case: Marina eventually carries on an affair with the cop, Andrey (Sergei Borisov), even going so far as to lie to her husband about a trip to see her mother in order to live under his roof. Andrey is a big, burly macho type, deep caveman voice and all; at one point, he even admits to Marina that he believes citizens need to fear the police rather than feel safe with them. Marina acts in a domestic manner around Andrey, his brother (Vsevolod Voronov), and grandfather (Alexei Belousov) in a small, cramped apartment. Andrey and Marina engage in rough sex, but every time she dares to say the words “I love you,” Andrey gets angry and either slaps her or threatens worse violence. She repeats this to him, by the way, as if trying to wear him down with human kindness.
The implications of the film’s concluding moments, though, are left wide open in deeply unsettling ways. Does Marina genuinely have some kind of masochistic affection for this cop who raped her? Is this all part of some audacious revenge scheme on her part—a scheme more about asserting her sexual dominance and power over this brutish man’s man than about physical eye-for-an-eye violence? How much of this was predetermined and how much improvised in the moment on her part? Nikonova and Dihovichnaya—the latter giving a lead performance that is remarkable in its opacity, hardness, and stoicism—refuses to offer any easy answers, trusting her audience to draw their own conclusions and make of it all what they will. Twilight Portrait, as infuriating as it sometimes is in the moment, is ultimately haunting in its ambiguities. You may not like or even understand everything you see, but for better or worse, you certainly won’t forget it.