A hard-drinking paramedic runs into deep trouble both at home and work in director Boris Khlebnikov’s prize-winning Russian drama.
A forensic dissection of a medical marriage in crisis, Arrhythmia takes place in contemporary Russia, but it could equally be set anywhere where doctors and paramedics struggle to maintain their humanity under life-or-death work pressures. Writer-director Boris Khlebnikov originally planned his sixth feature as a comedy, but the tone turned darker and heavier as he began researching the lives of real Russian health professionals. The end result is a film that has the bright look and brisk pace of a comedy, but the visceral emotional kick of a serious art house drama.
Set for a domestic release in September, Arrhythmia made its international debut at Karlovy Vary International Film Festival last week, where its male lead Alexander Yatsenko won the best actor prize. Less culturally specific than most Russian fare, with emotional fireworks taking precedent over socio-political subtext, this high-quality soapy melodrama boasts the kind of gutsy performances and universal themes that could stir up theatrical interest beyond the festival circuit.
Yatsenko stars as Oleg, a paramedic working on an ambulance crew in an unnamed Russian city. A serial rule-breaker under crisis conditions, Oleg silences a time-wasting hypochondriac with fake plastic placebos, threatens to punch a Jehovah’s Witness who refuses a blood transfusion and even performs crude high-risk surgery on a child following a near-fatal accident. Oleg’s rebellious attitude saves lives, but it also causes at least one fatality, pitching him into conflict with a petty bureaucrat hospital boss who wants to impose strict time limits on ambulance call-outs: “They can die on another person’s watch,” he says callously.
Away from his high-stress job, Oleg lets off steam by drinking himself to oblivion on a nightly basis, seemingly oblivious to the damage this is wreaking on his marriage until his junior doctor wife Katya (Irina Gorbacheva) finally snaps and demands a divorce. Initially defiant and unrepentant, Oleg moves into the kitchen of their small apartment, where his mood alternates between wounded rage and sullen self-flagellation. “I’m a loser and you’re right for hating me,” he shrugs. Katya’s resolve wavers at times, and she even seems open to giving the relationship another chance after a lusty bout of drunken makeup sex that radiates an authentically tender intimacy. But once again, Oleg sabotages their fragile truce with his passive-aggressive petulance.
Khlebnikov strings these intertwined plot threads into a loose series of fast-moving vignettes that chronicle Oleg’s self-sabotaging downward spiral both at home and work. Yatsenko gives a committed performance as a charming man-child whose boozy bonhomie can shade all too easily into needy self-pity, especially during the film’s latter half, when his constant hangdog expression suggests he is perpetually on the verge of bursting into tears.
Gorbacheva gets less screen time and a less sympathetic treatment, but she still paints a humane portrait of love tested to breaking point. The power imbalance between the couple, with Katya on course for higher wages and greater professional prestige than Oleg, is a nice reversal of big-screen norms that further complicates their emotional tug of war.
Frenetic and kinetic, Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev’s camerawork leans towards a documentary-style naturalism that gives Arrhythmia more of a televisual than cinematic look. The patchwork plot is inevitably episodic and a little repetitive, with a few too many scenes that add nothing to the drama besides showing how relationship breakups are often jagged, indecisive, cyclical affairs. Without getting into spoilers, Khlebnikov also serves up a glib resolution that feels a little too sweet and neat considering the vodka-soaked, blood-drenched carnage that preceded it. The wound has been healed for now, but it is hard to believe the stitches will hold.
Production companies: Mars Media Entertainment, CTB Film Company
Cast: Alexander Yatsenko, Irina Gorbacheva, Galina Averyanova, Polina Ilyukhina, Vladimir Kapustin
Director: Boris Khlebnikov
Screenwriters: Boris Khlebnikov, Natalia Meshchaninova
Cinematographer: Alisher Khamidkhodzhaev
Editors: Ivan Lebedev, Yulia Batalova
Producers: Producers: Ruben Dishdishyan, Sergey Selyanov, Natalia Drozd, Aleksi Hyvärinen, Toni Valla, Eva Blondiau
Venue: Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
Sales company: Indie Sales, Paris