Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

You Were Never Really There
"Though the filmmaking is good, the bleakness of the message is unremitting."

The walk that Aloysha (Matvey Novikov) takes home from school is filled with a wintry chill. A lonely wander through woody scrub where bare trees scratch the sky. But it is nothing compared to the freezing cold reception at home in his apartment, where his warring parents Zhenya (Maryana Spevak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin) have the emotional setting at permanently sub-zero temperatures, their arguing and off-hand castigation of their son merely for exisiting providing additional wind chill.

That we meet Aloysha silently in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Foreign-language Oscar-nominated film – co-scripted with Oleg Negin – sets the tone for a narrative in which his voice is barely heard amid the self-centred cacophony of his parents. They barely notice he is there (and, later fail to notice when he isn't), so wrapped up are they in their own world – both embarking on new relationships and shucking off the old one as though it was nothing more than a skin to be left flapping in the wind. In the film’s most striking moment, Aloysha is again stripped of sound, his face twisted in a silent scream of anguish that pierces the heart more than a thousand words.

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As the film unexpectedly becomes a sort of police procedural, Zvyaginstsev lets his camera stalk around, generating tension in unexpected ways, not least through the clash of nature and urbanisation. Though the filmmaking is good, the bleakness of the message is unremitting. In this Russia, families are fractured beyond repair, hypocritically watching their religion at workplaces that demand monogamy while slavishly worshipping their mobile phones in their off-hours, as though their honeyed glow and social media spotlight is all the blessing needed.

Despite the strong camerawork from Mikhail Krichman and the film’s impressively maintained mood, it remains hard to fully recommend. This is partially because Zyvaginstsev lays his Russian metaphors on too thick but also because of its unremitting bleakness – so little warmth gets in that it becomes hard to believe in places. There’s also a strong suspicion that the director wants to punish his protagonists and us, the viewers, rather than sway us with an argument. Worst of all, there’s an imbalance between the sexes. Boris is bad, but somehow Zhenya, and later her mother, are the real villains of the piece, perhaps a pot-shot at Mother Russia, but it, like too much of this film, ends up coming across as too heavy handed.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2018
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A couple go looking for their young son after he disappears during one of their bitter rows.
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Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Writer: Oleg Negin

Starring: Maryana Spivak, Alexei Rozin

Year: 2017

Runtime: 127 minutes

Country: France

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