Alejandro Adams sets up worlds and leaps into them, no establishing shot needed. The Bay Area auteur’s third feature film, Babnik, opens with people bunched around a table, the camera panning from tight close-up to tight close-up. Russian is spoken, and narrative groundwork is laid, casually, between phone calls: Rooms need to be rented, models found, websites set up, etc. Where are we? Cut to an introverted émigré being sent home by his American bosses in what could be a scene from Office Space if it weren’t for the notes of dread hanging in the air. (“They told me, gently, that they are getting rid of me,” he tells his wife.) Elsewhere, a broom-pushing scowler works at a deli and watches from the sidelines. Business decisions, all, and only gradually does Adams reveal that the business connecting his ensemble is sex-trafficking, the meat market harvesting young women marooned in a strange land. It’s a topic that could easily lend itself to exploitative hysteria—see Marco Kreuzpaintner’s Trade for a noxious recent example—but Adams cools it with disquieting quotidian impressionism. What you see are liminal interactions, the pimp’s practiced routine (“I can tell a lot by just looking at your neck…Your figure is amazing, but you need to maintain it”), girls groomed and comforted, long passages of unsubtitled Russian. And what you see is an unsettlingly shadowless California of bare studios, vacant telemarketing offices, and half-furnished apartments. The subleased spiritual terrain of people in crisis.
The sex-trafficking here functions like the organ-trafficking in Canary (2009) and the dissolving family in Around the Bay (2008), namely as the axis of an insinuatingly incomplete structure in which absences seem to bulge off the screen. Like those earlier Adams films, Babnik is raw yet aestheticized, formalist yet human-centered, detached yet immersive. It’s a horror film full of scenes of people hanging out, of burly crooks (Michael Umansky and Alexander Shkolnikov) strumming guitars and affably pantomiming sexy feminine poses, unaware that they’re supposed to be the picture’s villains. Every character is essential, but their information is divulged sideways, in the way a potential young model (Nika Gambarin) angers her brother (Arseniy Arkhipov) by asking for ketchup in English, or in the way the camera glimpses the bruised skin on the knuckles of a henpecked gambler (Artem Mishin). There’s something of the Claire Denis of I Can’t Sleep in the film’s welter of jagged relationships and its scrutiny of the characters’ impulses, in how it catches the desperate, darting eyes of Mishin’s strapped patsy when a criminal assignment is described to him as “a minute and a half of excitement.” Adams is no low-fi minimalist: His use of actors, light, editing rhythms, and sound design are all calibrated to the emotions on the screen, and often to the extent of becoming nearly hallucinatory. Somewhat marred by a final-act pretzel of betrayals, Babnik nevertheless finds an adventurous filmmaker continuing to push forward, seeking not so much subjects as ways of seeing.
Babnik will be playing Tuesday, October 12 at UCLA and Friday, November 5 at the San Francisco Film Society.