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?