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Stars: Alexander Yatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva.
Writers: Boris Khlebnikov and Natalia Meshchaninova
Director: Boris Khlebnikov

WINNER: The SCREEN-SPACE Award for Best New Russian Film; Russian Resurrection Film Festival, Sydney, Australia. Announced at the Closing Night ceremony, November 5, 2017.

Rating: 4/5

The increasingly tenuous emotional bond a married couple share achieves a simple yet profound universality in Boris Khlebnikov’s Arrhythmia. With a pair of achingly endearing lead performers to guide the narrative through the rocky relationship terrain, the Russian writer/director has crafted a sweet, sad, deceptively affecting drama that captures two young, professional Muscovites living in a cramp apartment yet drifting a world apart.

Oleg (Alexander Yatsenko) is an EMT paramedic; Katya (Irina Gorbacheva), a young doctor pulling long shifts well into the night. Their marriage has grown functional, the couple still attending family gatherings and being available to share transport, but communication and connection are strained. Oleg numbs himself to their disconnect through booze; Katya, however, is more attuned to their troubles and seeks a divorce (via text, at her father’s birthday party after Oleg acts the boorish lush).

Yatsenko won Best Actor honours at the 2017 Karlovy Vary Film Festival for a performance that challenges leading man conventions, defying audience sympathy yet forging an understanding that goes some way to explaining why Katya would tolerate his understated yet often loathsome manner. Despite the central arc being Oleg’s, Gorbacheva delivers the film’s most emotionally resonant performance; the actress’ doleful expression and admirable yet potentially self-destructive empathy for her troubled husband is heartbreaking, yet never plays as weak. Her mid-traffic jam meltdown, a terrific piece of screen acting, is a lump-in-the-throat sequence; her free-spirited kitchen dance to a favourite pop song from her teen years, perfectly pitched.

With co-scripter Natalia Meshchaninova, Khlebnikov (Roads to Koktobel, 2003; A Long and Happy Life, 2013) deftly handles a subplot that addresses his nation’s crumbling healthcare industry. Oleg’s professional life is taking on new pressures as the ambulance sector is forced into cost cutting and reporting measures, drawing him into direct conflict with his superiors. In addition to highlighting the sad state of Russian health care, scenes of Oleg defying protocol to save lives help to broaden audience understanding of the character. Katya’s workplace stresses are not afforded the same focus, although the realities of her job are plainly evident in her sleep schedule and complete lack of social distractions.

Arrhythmia does not dwell in the deep, dark realm of social-realism that, rightly or wrongly, is often synonymous with Russian cinema. Khlebnikov brings a modern European sensibility to his storytelling that recalls the intimacy of The Dardennes Brothers and the works of Romanian New Wave auteurs such as Cristian Mungiu (notably, 2005’s The Death of Mr. Lăzărescu). It is a beautiful, infuriating, entirely human study of flawed, floundering lives intertwined to the point of being inseparable; for Oleg and Katya, that is both a wildly romantic and sadly final place for young lives to exist.

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