Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Darya Zhovner as Ila in Closeness
"It is, presumably, his desire for realism that leads him to cross what will be a bridge too far for many audiences."

Closeness can sound cosy, tight-knit and welcoming but it also evokes memories of a sticky day in a boxed-up airless room or the brush of another person, too near for comfort. All of which makes it the perfect title for Kantemir Balagov's accomplished debut film (co-written with Anton Yarush), which explores the word to its fullest extent.

The action takes place in 1998 near the Russia/Chechnya border against the background of what would become the Second Chechen War, and the director inserts his own experience into the film, bookending it by telling us he's from Nalchik, where the action takes place and that the story is drawn from actual events. It is, presumably, his desire for realism that leads him to cross what will be a bridge too far for many audiences, as he includes genuine execution footage from the period. The problems with this aren't limited to the fact that there is no warning beforehand for audiences who may well have serious moral objections to watching someone die onscreen but also what appears to be a blithe disregard for real victims (and their families), who, it seems, have no say regarding the use of this footage. Capping off the issue, the footage crops up during one of the film's least engaging sequences and adds very little beyond shock value, as though Balagov, for a moment, forgets the story of the film in order to scratch a very personal itch - a hunch backed up by what he has said regarding his first encounter with the execution video.

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It's a shame he has hamstrung the film to an extent with that segment - and it might be that an astute distributor would make a judicious edit. The rest offers a tense exploration of mother and daughter relationships as well as a gripping character study. Standing front and centre is the tomboyish Ila (Darya Zhovner). She lives with her Jewish family, helping her father (Atrem Cipin) in his car garage. They're a close clan and community but there's something just a bit close for comfort about the relationship Ila has with her brother David (Venjamin Katz), a dangerous mix of rivalry and near-incestuousness. Balagov explores the space between the point where a warm and safe bear hug becomes a stifling death grip, and the way that pulling away from the closeness of a family too hard can lead to its own problems.

Ila lives for taboo-breaking, shunning the dresses expected of her by mum Adina (Olga Dragunova) in favour of dungarees and ignoring the advances of what her family would consider to be a 'nice boy', to pursue a 'forbidden' relationship with a Kabardian (Nazir Zhukov). When a kidnapping occurs, the family and community cocoon begins to unravel in expected ways. with loyalties broken as easily as snapping a twig.

Balagov's idea of closeness extends to the look. The whole film is shot in a claustrophobic 4:3 aspect ratio, with Ila increasingly framed - if not, ultimately, trapped - in smaller and smaller areas within that frame, hemmed in by objects that often emphasise her face. The stifling atmosphere generated by the director and Artem Yemelyanov is impressive and Zhovner's performance straps us tight to Ila's emotional roller coaster but Balagov needs to learn that less is more when it comes to murder.

Reviewed on: 30 Dec 2017
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Closeness packshot
A family struggle to raise the ransom after a kidnapping.

Director: Kantemir Balagov

Writer: Kantemir Balagov, Anton Yarush

Starring: Darya Zhovner, Olga Draganova, Veniamin Kats, Artem Tsypin, Nazir Zhukov

Year: 2017

Runtime: 118 minutes

Country: Russia

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