John Bleasdale

Venice 2012: ‘Betrayal’ review

★★☆☆☆

Love, obsession and revenge are the themes of Kirill Serebrennikov’s beguilingly strange, yet ultimately flaccid Betrayal (Izmena, 2012). The film is a Crime and Punishment-style morality tale, told via Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Franziska Petri plays a doctor who whilst examining one of her patients (Dejan Lilic), reveals that her husband is cheating with his wife. His life turned upside down, the pair of cuckolds are drawn together as the betrayed couple almost seem to luxuriate in detailing the exact lineaments of their spouses’ infidelity.

Nothing is quite what it seems, and this is no straight-forward drama. It’s sometimes difficult to tell what is happening in reality and what is the result of the distorted perspectives of the protagonists. Upon first hearing the news, the bewildered husband walks along a road only to witness an SUV plough into a bus queue. The heavy-handed symbolism aside (his marriage has recently become a ‘car crash’ of sorts), it almost seems as if the characters’ extreme emotions are being played out by a pathetic fallacy of destructive power. Later in the film, a thunderstorm detonates over a supermarket car park in apocalyptic fashion.

Unfortunately, Betrayal is leaden-paced and succeeds in that difficult task of being simultaneously intriguing and dull. Although Petri plays her role with a remarkable intensity, Lilic is the more familiar melancholic figure that crops up far too often in Russian cinema. His character is undefined – we never find out what he does for a living – and his behaviour often seems motivated by the necessity of the plot rather than the motives of the character.

In the last act, Serebrennikov lets his Hitchcock show, with a sumptuous soundtrack, copious use of staircases and his leading lady’s hairdo all increasingly recalling the aforementioned Vertigo. There are twists and turns – some of which are effective, others frankly baffling – and there are several moments when the film could have ended satisfactorily. However, Betrayal takes its time, lingering specifically on an interesting visual, often reflections or isolating its characters under an overbearingly white Russian sky.

The film starts in a waiting room and spends far more time in waiting rooms and corridors than is healthy. The Russia Serebrennikov presents is one of economic affluence, an upper middle class, driving their SUVs and indulging in saunas and the betrayal of the title. There are moments of quirky humour, as well. However, the conclusions drawn in Betrayal are bleak and the characters all seem in one way or another to be going to their self-appointed hells. One is just left wishing they hadn’t meandered so much along the way.

The 69th Venice Film Festival runs from 29 August-8 September. For more of our Venice 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.

John Bleasdale