Russia, Finland, Germany, 2017
Color, 112 minutes
In Russian with English subtitles
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenplay: Nataliia Meshchaninova, Boris Khlebnikov
Cinematography: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Production Design: Ol’ga Khlebnikova
Cast: Aleksandr Iatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva, Nikolai Shraiber, Maksim Lagashkin
Producers: Ruben Dishdishian, Sergei Selianov
Production: Mars Media, Film Company CTB, with financial support from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation

Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia comes as his return to the big screen after a several-year hiatus during which he worked on other projects, such as the television show Anxiety (Ozabochenie).  This return was more than successful, not only generally gathering positive reviews from critics and filmgoers alike, but also earning the Grand Prize and the Spectators’ Choice prize at Kinotavr, as well as the prize for Best Male Role for Aleksandr Iatsenko’s portrayal of Oleg.  These successes are well-deserved, but are emotionally in stark contrast to the film’s darker nature. Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia takes a stark look at Russian modernity, using an ambivalent lens to explore, amongst other things, the themes of dehumanization, escapism, and falsity.

The motif of falsity is present in many ways in this film, and it is particularly accentuated through the use (or lack) of music. The silence in this film, a holdover from Khlebnikov’s participation in the Novye Tikhie (the New Quiet) movement, is broken in a significant way only by “Our Summer” (“Nashe Leto”) by Valentin Strykalo.  It would be difficult to find a song that better engages with the motif of falsity.  If this is not evident from the throwback synth tones and consciously trite lyrics, one need only watch its accompanying music video, sarcastic through and through.

The song arrives when Oleg and Katia (Irina Gorbacheva) emotionally reconcile while drunk at a party, and it accompanies what represents the only moments of hope or peace in the relationship plotline.  Put differently, their extreme dysfunction, their real problems, can only disappear in the face of alcohol-driven escapism and denial of reality.  The song returns again at the end of the film, accentuating false hope, the only kind available to the characters in this all too familiar world.

The first of two parallel plotlines in this film is that of the complete disintegration of Oleg and Katia’s relationship.  Katia is tall, responsible, committed, sober—Oleg’s antithesis, all the things that he seems not to be able to be.  A primary device that Khlebnikov turns to in the depiction of this relationship’s dynamic and deterioration is that of the visual metaphor, most prominently using their apartment and car.  The car shows where they are going (hint: nowhere), the apartment exhibits periods of inertia.

The car is an important visual metaphor in a number of ways.  One example is Oleg’s inability to drive it, as he lacks the control to determine his route due to his alcoholism.  Another is that this location is used both to introduce the conflict in the couple’s relationship, as well as to bring it to a climax—when Katia can no longer deal with the situation and gets out of the car in the middle of the road.

In the apartment, Khlebnikov repeatedly uses a shot from the entry hall, opening into the separate rooms, prominently divided by a doorpost: Katia in the bedroom, a place to hide, and Oleg in the kitchen, a place to consume.  In both cases, we see elements of escapism, one more destructive than the other, but neither able to deal with the problems at hand.  Notably, it is in the kitchen, on Oleg’s terms (that is, drunkenly) that the couple is able to reunite emotionally and physically.  Again, this exemplifies the false nature of all seeming resolutions to the problems at hand.

Falsity also finds its way into the second, the professional plotline of the film, entwined with a discourse on the dehumanizing aspects of modern life.  In Oleg’s working world, that of a paramedic, there is a regime change, and a new way of doing things is introduced, but neither administration is able to respond successfully to the people in need, be they a lonely senior or societally abandoned brawlers.

The first administration is characterized by the typical quotidian corruption that is often seen as a way of keeping a system limping along.  In one instance, Oleg saves a woman’s life by assaulting her daughter, who had been trying to prevent the administration of medical care that goes against the family’s religious beliefs.  His superior complacently aids in writing the response to the daughter’s lodged complaint in order that professional complications be avoided.  Beyond the behaviour of the characters, the quotidian corruption is reflected here by the utterly typical, unadorned mise-en-scène of the provincial hospital office where this meeting takes place.

The second administration demands a new approach to the medical business—that of the bottom line.  The intimate work of the paramedic is mechanized through a number of changes—numbers instead of heartbeats, centralized decision-making via radio instead of a personal approach.  At a meeting, the characters discuss the new policy of not attending to the nearest patient, but rather ignoring all patients who do not fall within their realm of expertise.  Khlebnikov again approaches this problematic with ambivalence:  in a shaky, hand-held shot, he captures the traumatic distress of a family whose daughter is being denied medical care because Oleg’s specialty is not pediatrics.  This is contrasted later with a somber, steady shot showing a woman whose death is related to the added wait time that Oleg’s personal approach forced him to take.

If the motif of falsity is present in the depiction of the first administration in the form of manipulation and corruption, then in the depiction of the second it is visible in the veneer of professionalism.  The new director demands these changes, supposedly aspiring toward greater efficiency and professionalism, but then when Oleg refuses or fails to live up to these standards, the director resorts to physical violence to enforce his policies.  Additional falsity is evident in the deceitful attempt to avoid lawsuits, when the director approaches a distraught mother and uses her vulnerability in the pursuit of economic goals.  Neither a personal approach, nor a cold business one can deal with the problems of modern society.

The film ends in an ambulance.  With a man in the back in critical condition, the vehicle finds itself stuck in seemingly endless traffic, with nobody paying attention to its blaring siren.  The vehicle tries to make its way through the lines of cars, driving toward the blinding light that shines through its dirty windshield.  Some read this as a hopeful sign of closure, as the vehicle symbolically pushes forward with its wounded cargo.  Perhaps it is Khlebnikov’s ambivalence making its appearance again, but another reading would yield bleaker prospects: it is not clear where the vehicle is going, there seems to be no destination, no clear way of progressing; there is simply the existential need to keep moving.

M. O’Shea

Boris Khlebnikov is a prominent director and screenwriter, based in the Russian Federation. A Moscow native, much of his work engages with contemporary Russia.  Khlebnikov received his degree in Cinema Studies from VGIK, then began his career as a director.  His first feature film Koktebel gathered a number of prizes, both for its screenplay and as a completed film.  Since that debut, Khlebnikov has continued to receive Russian and international recognition for his work, notably for Free Floating and A Long and Happy Life.

Selected Filmography:
2018    The Day Before
2017    Arrhythmia
2013    A Long and Happy Life
2012    Till Night Do Us Part
2009    Help Gone Mad
2009    Crush: 5 Love Stories (one episode)
2006    Free Floating
2003    Koktebel (co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii)
2000    The Sly Frog (short; co-directed with Aleksei Popogrebskii)

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