Often the most exciting films at festivals are the complete unknowns, the wildcards that immediately grab the viewer by surprise and don't let go. Such is the case with Kantemir Balagov’s Closeness, playing in the festival's Un Certain Regard section. It’s the best kind of debut feature—raw and undisciplined, but vibrating with life, the kind of bolt from the blue that turns an unknown into a director to watch.
Turning his lens to his hometown of Nalchik, a small town in the North Caucasus, an area not usually put to screen, Balagov draws from the history of the region ca. 1998, specifically the kidnappings fairly common at the time. Here, a young Jewish couple, David (Veniamin Kac) and Lea, are taken the night of their engagement and held for ransom. Going to the police is not an option, so the families look to their “tribe” for help. There's enough money to rescue Lea, but David's family is forced to come up with the rest. And it's Ilana (Darya Zhovner), his strong-willed sister and the tenacious center of the film, who is hit the hardest.
Regional tensions, mainly between Jews and Kabardians, fill the background of Balagov’s canvas, often coming to the fore in key moments. Ilana's tenuous relationship with her parents—already strained by her love affair with Zalim (Nazir Zhukov), a Kabardian, and her generally rebellious demeanor—is stretched to the breaking point by the kidnapping, forcing her outside the confines of her family and community. Her parents, left with few options, sell the family businesses—including the car repair shop that Ilana works at—and attempt to marry her off to a family friend whose parents offer financial help in return. It's a wrenching impasse, not least because of the firm bond Balagov draws between the siblings within the space of just two or three early scenes. How much can one bear for a loved one? How much should one have to?
Zhovner, who looks vaguely like a young Sigourney Weaver, is a riveting presence. She imbues Ila with an explosive intensity and self-destructiveness—the sense of a woman essentially abandoned, left with no option but to throw herself into the harsh, inhospitable unknown. (That said, she does equally well in silence, often holding the frame with just her gaze.) The original title, Tesnota, often translates as “narrowness, constriction and confinement” (per the translator’s note), impressions more than fulfilled by the film’s rabid, visceral energy. DP Artem Emilianov, composing largely in handheld and in 1.33, captures the cramped interiors and claustrophobic hallways with a palpable urgency; scenes are dominated by vibrant primary colors—the deep red of a brutal tryst; the strobing blues of a makeshift night-club; the yellowish-green of a tinted car window. Harrowing scenes cut like shards of stained glass, shimmering with light and often drawing blood. There’s a jagged, arrhythmic flow that’s both unpredictable and utterly arresting. (A shot that does nothing but hold Zhovner in close-up for far longer than one would expect, her expression suggesting both danger and drugged-out bliss, just leaps off the screen.) That's especially true of the real-life footage Balagov includes, of gruesome executions that occurred at the time in the village of Daghestan, which the camera holds for a few harrowing minutes. It's a bold choice, one that not many directors would make; and the fact that the film doesn't circle back and explicitly comment on it is a choice even fewer would. But because the film so forcefully constructs itself around Ilana, the moment, while undeniably shocking, ultimately gets forged into the mere fact of her existence. Like the overall tenor of Closeness, whose images possess a startling, aggressive intimacy, it's confrontational, but never merely so. Scenes like these abound, Zhovner’s presence filling most every frame, practically bending each space by sheer force of will, as when Ilana moves to music that has long since ended, accompanied only by silence and pulsating siren lights. When the film finally opens up to a rare exterior scene—the sky awash with orange clouds and the pale yellow of sunrise—Ilana’s bleak experience is thrown into sharp relief, the fragments of her life suffused with light.
Alternately tender and brutal, Balagov’s is a film filled with ugliness and beauty, often all at once—the stuff of life, in other words. History melds into memory, absorbed into the expansive landscapes that bookend the film, and the greater fabric of a family's existence. “I don't know what happened to these people after that,” says the closing narration. It's a testament to Closeness that that is more than enough.