The horror of “Twilight Portait.” Also, the beauty.

Sergei Golyudov, Sergei Borisov, director Angelina Nikonova and Olga Dykhovichnaya

Trigger warning for sexual violence. Also, there will be spoilers.

When I first heard about “Twilight Portrait,” I decided that I wasn’t going to watch it. The movie’s plot centered on the transformation that the heroine, Marina (played by Olga Dykhovichnaya), undergoes when she is gang-raped by three traffic cops in an unidentified Russian town. A gang-rape is bad enough – what I wasn’t prepared to sit through was Marina’s subsequent affair with one of the cops who rapes her.

Yet the existence of the 2011 no-budget Russian film, which suddenly attracted a lot of attention in Russia and abroad, nagged at me. Probably because it was made by two women: Dykhovichnaya got the idea for the film, and co-wrote it with director Angelina Nikonova. I became curious about how this twosome pulled off such a controversial plot. I was also curious about the actor who played the main rapist dude – Sergei Borisov is a real-life traffic cop from small-town Russia, and now that I’m in the movie business to one degree or another, I try to pay attention to alleged diamonds from the rough.

Well, you know what, Borisov is a diamond in the rough, alright. Also “Twilight Portrait” is a fucked-up picture – but the reason it’s fucked-up has nothing to do with the old “the rape victim liked it, because bitches like rape.” No, “Twilight Portrait” is a horrifying movie because it gets something right – something right about power, class, and, oddly enough, human loneliness. I would recommend it to all readers of this blog who can stomach the violence – which is neither gratuitous, nor particularly sparing. In “Twilight Portait,” what you don’t see will just about tear you apart.

In the unnamed Russian town (which is really Rostov-on-Don, the same town where sadistic serial killer Andrei Chikatilo butchered women and kids in the dying days of the Soviet Union, to give you a bit of context), cops ride around on the streets, looking for sex-workers to rape and rob. Marina, a stylish social worker from an affluent background, once nearly witnesses such a crime – she hears the scream of a sex-worker being tackled by police right outside her summer dacha, but doesn’t investigate beyond that. Marina’s decision is probably a sensible one – in most parts of Russia, the populace is terrorized by the police (and torture at police stations is practically a regular occurrence).

But then Marina stumbles into the police’s path anyway. Coming back from a secret meeting with the boring boyfriend she occasionally substitutes for her equally boring husband, she first breaks a heel, then gets held up a street-side cafe where her immaculate white trenchcoat sticks out like a sore thumb, and is then robbed. Stumbling around with no ID, money or mobile phone in the poorer side of town, she’s picked up by the cops, who mistake her for yet another sex-worker. You can guess what happens next.

After the rape, Marina tells no one. Her husband, who is mostly interested in advancing his own business interests, suspects nothing. Marina discreetly gets tested for STDs, gets drunk at her birthday party and lambasts her insincere friends, wonders out loud if she should continue social work considering that she only “confuses” kids from poor, abusive families (“better to let them become wholesome monsters,” she says bitterly, at one point), but mostly – she stalks the street where she was first picked up by the cops.

You get the sense that she’s looking for something, and that something is probably revenge. She gets her chance when she follows one of the cops home from the familiar cafe. She follows him into his building and into the elevator carrying a broken beer bottle. She presses the “stop” button. And then she gives the dude who raped her a blow-job.

What the shit? You’re probably thinking. But the story is far from over. Telling her husband she’s off on vacation, Marina packs a suitcase and camps out by the cop’s building. Recognizing her from the night before, he brings her in. They fuck for days in his decrepit flat. Marina gets high with the cop’s generally well-meaning stoner brother, and spoon-feeds the senile grandfather who entertains himself by dancing jigs in the kitchen, but mostly Marina just fucks the cop who raped her.

“I love you,” she starts telling him during sex. He first freaks out, then tells her to stop, then hits her. From the cop’s brother, Marina finds out that there’s an ex-wife in the picture, whom nobody mentions anymore, lest they want an ass-kicking from the cop. “I love you,” Marina keeps repeating to her then-rapist, now-lover, like a mantra and a kind of curse. He can’t handle it.

The brother shows Marina the scars left over from beatings administered by the grandfather back when he was younger and stronger. The cycle of violence and desperation in the cop’s family becomes apparent, but is never spoken about. What would be the point? Marina is beyond the verbal, at this point. So is the cop.

For his part, the cop seems to have no recollection of raping Marina. Maybe he really doesn’t remember – it was dark, he may or may not have been drinking. “I wanted to become a policeman because I wanted to become human,” he tells her, at one point. He’s handsome and fit in a way Marina’s upper-class lovers aren’t – but more importantly, he’s honest about what he wants from her, which is more than just sex and food. Something else is going on here, and it’s even darker than “rape victim is so traumatized that she identifies with her abuser.” You get the sense that out of all the people in Marina’s social circle, this is the only one she can be herself with – this guy who not just rapes defenseless women, but readily covers up the deadly crimes of his colleagues.

In the end, Marina pretends to go back to her old life – but doesn’t. I don’t really want to talk about the ending much, because it’s probably not all that important about the ultimate issue I want to raise with regard to this film – but the cop does take off his badge and gun and follow Marina into the unknown. In his own brutal, terrifying way, he loves her back.

For me, this was a movie about two equals meeting in a society where sexual violence is predicated upon complex hierarchies that nevertheless boil down to one simple thing: the stonger devours the weaker. Marina understands this after she is raped – the hypocrisy of her social position and her friends’ social positions becomes apparent to her, as is the fact that she is alone, really alone, and have been this way for a long time, even before the rape. And as a social worker from a wealthy family, she’s a bit of a tourist in the lives of the underprivileged – and suddenly, the very people she was trying to help dehumanize and destroy her. In trying to establish contact with her rapist, it’s like she’s trying to go back to the source – to understand where darkness and violence and despair come from – so that she can move on from what happened. She “moves on” alright. She discards her old social norms and falls in love for what looks like to be the first time. The rape doesn’t just expose the darkness inside other people – it looks that while trying to deal with it in her own way, she exposes the darkness inside herself. There is no melodrama or pathos to her transformation – which is why, perhaps, it’s so eerily believable.

I found this movie to be horrifying – but also strangely beautiful, probably because there is a kind of beauty in emotional honesty, and possibly because of the way it was shot. There is no redemption story here – but no hopelessness either. I don’t think that people are all rapists and killers on the inside, and I don’t think that rape is some kind of path to self-discovery (and for the record, I don’t think the filmmakers do either) – but I found the movie to give an accurate depiction of Russian society, where sexual violence is mostly something you have to move on from privately. In a telling scene with a teacher of a girl who Marina suspects of having been raped, the teacher acts horrified, then asks, “You don’t think this student presents a danger to other, normal girls – do you?” Hahahaha, yep, I thought – there it is. Rape is treated like a contagious disease – better not tell anyone if it’s happened to you, or else they’ll quarantine you…

I suppose in the end, it was good to remember that people deal with rape in different ways. Especially when they have no support network to speak of. So much of the pain of a movie like “Twilight Portrait” is derived from the what ifs: what if she had someone to talk to, what if the cop’s grandfather didn’t beat the crap out of him when he was a kid, what if poor people and assault victims could actually trust the authorities every once in a while, what if mercy could sometimes prevail?

33 comments for “The horror of “Twilight Portait.” Also, the beauty.

  1. July 19, 2012 at 11:43 am

    rape has been pandemic in russian society for a long time—i used to be a big fan of ayn rand when i was young and stupid—-she had a rape fetish—anybody who has read her novels knows what im talking about—and she emigrated here from russia in the 1920s—i dont intend to go see this film, because i cant stomach the violence—but it sounds like it does explore some interesting truths about the human condition

  2. July 19, 2012 at 12:06 pm

    Some of it sounds interesting, but I can’t bear to watch any movie with a rape scene. I’ll have to skip this movie.

  3. EG
    July 19, 2012 at 12:16 pm

    I can’t watch rape scenes either. But I’m glad to have read your thoughts on the movie, Natalia.

  4. July 19, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Thanks for going over the film so well here – it does sound like a very powerful movie, though not one I’m sure I’m prepared to view, so I really appreciate your insights. Sometimes a horrible truth is more important and more just than a beautiful fiction. Stories which tell us where we came from are just as essential as stories which inspire us to where we want to go.

    (Perverse thought: I wonder what the “other” Twilight fans are taking out of this.)

  5. Echo Zen
    July 19, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    When I saw “Twilight Portait” in the title of this post, I assumed it was bad vampire fan fiction with multiple spelling errors… :-o

  6. Mike
    July 19, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Its entertainment. There are actually men and women who get their jollies off on sexual violence. Not everything has to conform to feminism. However its a fair warning for feminists to not go see this movie, if being sick of vampires wasnt enough of a reason already.

  7. July 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I think Mike is officially confused.

  8. July 19, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Its entertainment. There are actually men and women who get their jollies off on sexual violence. Not everything has to conform to feminism. However its a fair warning for feminists to not go see this movie, if being sick of vampires wasnt enough of a reason already.

    I just find rape so horrific and awful that I can’t watch it in any context. Whenever I see rape taking place in a movie, I feel shocked, horrified, and disgusted – it’s hard for me to stop thinking about it after watching such a scene, in fact, because it reminds me of the fact that such cruelty actually exists in real life. I can’t even watch classic movies like A Clockwork Orange and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because of all of the rape in those movies.

    I guess my attitude is very unusual since I’m not a victim of sexual assault, but that’s just how I am.

  9. librarygoose
    July 19, 2012 at 5:18 pm

    if being sick of vampires wasnt enough of a reason already.

    Is this a joke or did you not even bother to read the post?

  10. Chiara
    July 19, 2012 at 5:27 pm

    Its entertainment. There are actually men and women who get their jollies off on sexual violence. Not everything has to conform to feminism. However its a fair warning for feminists to not go see this movie, if being sick of vampires wasnt enough of a reason already.

    I disagree that a film having rape in it makes it anti-feminist. i mean look at films like boys dont cry or lilja 4ever. Not all movies are just about ‘entertainment’ some can be about art and have social commentary or at the very least make you aware of some bad shit that’s going on.

  11. Mike
    July 19, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Read the post. I just assumed that movie was supposed to be a hommage to Twilight in some way. After all similiar themes are used in the series as well, something the series has been criticized for.

  12. Tamara
    July 19, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    @mxe354 – I’m in the same boat. Can’t bear it. My partner was rewatching “Get Him to the Greek” the other night and I had to leave before the Las Vegas rape scene. Why is that considered comedy?

  13. July 19, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    I just assumed that movie was supposed to be a hommage to Twilight in some way. After all similiar themes are used in the series as well, something the series has been criticized for.

    You heard it here first, folks – the Twilight franchise not only ruined the use of a perfectly good word, it invented pro-rape narratives.

  14. librarygoose
    July 19, 2012 at 6:10 pm

    Read the post. I just assumed that movie was supposed to be a hommage to Twilight in some way.

    So you skimmed the post and lack critical thinking skills?

  15. Echo Zen
    July 19, 2012 at 6:48 pm

    If he skimmed the post, it doesn’t look like he skimmed through the first paragraph…

  16. July 19, 2012 at 7:06 pm

    @mxe354 – I’m in the same boat. Can’t bear it. My partner was rewatching “Get Him to the Greek” the other night and I had to leave before the Las Vegas rape scene. Why is that considered comedy?

    In addition to rape-related “comedy” (shudder), I hate it when people say things like “Well, that rape scene is okay because it shows how horrible rape is!” or “It makes the movie dark and edgy!” I never appreciate rape scenes in any way; I just think about how repulsive those scenes were and how there are actually human beings out there who suffer from the same brutality.

  17. July 19, 2012 at 8:31 pm

    What I don’t get is why if Mike didn’t read the post, which he clearly didn’t, he bothered posting a reply.

  18. Carol
    July 19, 2012 at 8:41 pm

    I have been a victim of sexual assault and can still stomach rape scenes, but I prefer to watch them alone. It’s not the rape scene itself, which I know isn’t real, but the thought of sitting next to someone who may be getting off on the violence that creeps me out.

  19. July 19, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Wow, thank you for this review. The movie sounds really interesting; I’m not 100% sure I can handle the rape scene, but if I decide I can I will try to rent it.

  20. Ariel
    July 19, 2012 at 9:15 pm

    I personally can’t handle rape scenes. All my friends think I’m weird cause I can’t stand to watch those scenes. I can’t handle it as comedy, except maybe as wanda sykes does it, as a commentary on our culture and society, not as a ‘hahaha rape’ thing. I can’t enjoy a movie if the rape is made to look consentual. Like in some movies, the woman says no and then later in the scene the guy just ‘has sex’ with her. I’m usually like, um… No. That’s rape right there.
    I couldn’t handle this movie. I’m glad I didn’t watch get em to the greek. I dislike the actors in that movie anyways. My ma, who knows I have this problem with rape scenes, told me there wasn’t any rape in it. (Luckily for me my movie intuition usually is pretty good these days and I can tell by reading the back if there will be rape or not.) I’m glad to know that I should never allow anyone to convince me to watch that movie now. Thank you for your comments.
    Sorry if this is a derail in any way.

    • Tamara
      July 19, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      @Ariel – I suspect your Ma might not have registered it as rape due to soaking in rape culture like the rest of us. Happy to have helped.

  21. July 19, 2012 at 9:28 pm

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who can’t watch anything with a rape scene. I’m also kind of pissed that Mike is still hanging around, posting nonsense completely unrelated to anything the post or discussion is actually about. It’s disrespectful to the people taking time to write these posts, and the people that want to have a conversation that is actually related to the topic at hand.

  22. oxygengrrl
    July 19, 2012 at 9:38 pm

    Thanks for the post. I have read a bit about this film and am still on the fence about whether or not I want to see it. But now I have a bit more data to go on. Natalia: do you have that on a t-shirt or business card: “seeing the emotionally/socially/politically difficult movies, to help you decide whether or not you want to”?

  23. July 20, 2012 at 12:52 am

    I think Mike has just preemptively won a Top Troll contest. Good on you, Mike!

    Also – I watch movies like this because it’s part of my work. It’s easier to handle some of the more terrifying scenes when you’re approaching a film from a “craft perspective,” to borrow a cheesy phrase. This doesn’t work with all films – I was permanently scarred by “Irreversible,” for example. Or, rather, “Irreversible” just pushed my buttons in a way that was extremely painful.

    I think “Twilight Portait” is a much less cynical movie in terms of plot – for what it’s worth.

    I also have to say that I definitely recommend this film to anyone who’s thinking about making an awesome picture using two Cannon Mark II’s and 20,000 bucks.

  24. Kaija24
    July 20, 2012 at 6:06 am

    I have been a victim of sexual assault and can still stomach rape scenes, but I prefer to watch them alone. It’s not the rape scene itself, which I know isn’t real, but the thought of sitting next to someone who may be getting off on the violence that creeps me out.

    This. I also prefer to watch alone, when I think I can deal with it, for the same reason. The use of “sexual violence” = “titillating/sexy” in many movies is too much for me…the idea that a whole lot of people are learning to or being conditioned to equate those two things makes me feel sick. Thank you for articulating something that has been floating around in my mind as an abstraction.

  25. Natalie
    July 20, 2012 at 9:24 am

    To be fair, the 4th Twilight book actually does have a gang-rape scene. Regardless anyone with a 6th grade reading level could figure out this article is not talking about that franchise.

  26. Partial Human
    July 20, 2012 at 12:26 pm

    I can’t watch rape or DV. There are films I’ve loved, bought on DVD, then left in their wrappers after I remembered certain scenes.

    Sometimes even infidelity squicks me out really badly. I’ve never been cheated on, so it’s strange. My friends think it’s a really bizarre think to be upset by in a film, or on tv.

    I recently saw a terrible film, billed as “A group of strangers try to survive in a cellar, following a nuclear attack on New York”. It was the most upsetting, horrific disgusting piece of cinematic shit I’ve ever seen. I’ve blanked the name out, but Rosanna Arquette and Milo Ventimiglia are in it.

    Don’t watch it, it has no redeeming features whatsoever.

    • July 22, 2012 at 1:36 pm

      @ partial human—-

      as far as im concerned theres nothing bizarre or wrong about being upset by other ppl’s suffering—-

  27. Mike
    July 20, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    You heard it here first, folks – the Twilight franchise not only ruined the use of a perfectly good word, it invented pro-rape narratives.

    No you didnt, you read it here first.

    http://voices.yahoo.com/twilight-four-volume-rape-fantasy-3747240.html

    and here

    http://www.anamardoll.com/2012/06/twilight-rape-narratives-good-and-bad.html

    and on and on. So you can see how somebody who does not care about he movies, but was aware of the flack they got, thought this movie was somehow linked to that twilight movie that got flack for its rape theme.

  28. July 20, 2012 at 1:21 pm

    Mike,

    No you didnt, you read it here first.

    Seriously, what’s up wtih your reading comprehension? Our point was that Twilight didn’t invent jack shit.

  29. konkonsn
    July 21, 2012 at 12:30 am

    I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who can’t watch anything with a rape scene.

    I also have serious problems with rape scenes in movies (I’m not a sexual assault survivor, to be clear). I actually do have sexual rape fantasies and like to read them as well, but if it’s portrayed with real people, I’m like, “Noooooooooope.” It because too real for me then, even if it is acting.

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