Dir: Natalia Meshchaninova | Drama | Russia, Lithuania | 123′
Best known for her debut The Hope Factory, Natalia Meshchaninova’s award-winning sophomore feature is an acutely observed and thoughtfully performed story of emotional disorder that unfolds in a remote dog-breeding facility in Russia.
Writing again with Boris Khlebnikov (they co-scripted Arrhythmia) and her real life partner Stepan Devonin, who also plays Egor, this latest drama combines tenderness, regret and yearning in a troubled vet who finds his animals easier to live with than his co-workers. Egor breeds special hunting dogs (Alabais, also known as Central Asian Shepherd dogs) using domesticated foxes in their training. He is empathetic rather than sentimental towards the animals in his care.
Devonin’s training as a vet informs his role as Egor and he brings a tenderness but clear focus as Egor. When he learns that his mother has died of heart problems related to alcohol abuse, it becomes abundantly clear that there are issues with his childhood relationship. And when his aunt arrives uninvited with a bunch of his mother’s photography, Egor brazenly tells her to “fuck off” a stance that flies in the face of his previously rather quiet and thoughtful behaviour. His troubled personality issues will soon surface in abundance, although rather late in the story. Clearly Egor has escaped into his work in this peaceful forest location, where he tends a dog who has just been brutally mauled with extreme dedication. He is also keen to ingratiate himself with his tough and overbearing boss Nikolai (Dmitriy Podnozov) who has been running the family training facility for several generations.
The dog-training involves the dogs chasing down small wooden tunnels – representing real burrows – where the dogs come into contact with the foxes and a tussle takes place, confirming the canine’s suitability for hunting. Although neither animal appears to come off any the worse for their order, the practice has attracted negative attention from the animal rights brigade who arrive at the gates to protest. Nikolai tells them: “go away children”.
Meanwhile, Egor starts to have feelings for Nikolai’s daughter Dasha (Yana Sekste) who shares the family house with her son Ivan (a strong debut from Vitya Ovodkov), There are humorous exchanges and they all seem to rub along very well, and Egor continues to tend his injured dog Belka, patiently teaching her how to swim in the nearby far-flowing river. Alhtough he’s clearly able to communicate affectionately with his dogs, Egor has real problems handling his relationship with Dasha but his feelings are palpable and he is clearly drawn to her physically. And although Nikolai seems to rule the roost, Egor’s latent anger eventually rears up again when he’s pushed to the limits. And it’s the animal activist who finally set the cat amongst the pigeons in a very well-thought out and imaginative plotline that has tragic consequences. MT