“You Jews are so gentle,” remarks Zalim to his girlfriend Ilana (newcomer Darya Zhovner). “And what are Kabardians like?” “Hard,” he retorts. Tesnota (Closeness, dir. Kantemir Balagov) plumbs drama from the blunt disjunction between Ilana’s family of Semitic extraction (if not, visibly, faith) and the majority ethnic group in their adopted home of Nalchik, the largest city in the none-too-populous North Caucasus region, a chunk of Russia perched above Azerbaijan and Georgia. Ilana and her father, auto mechanics by trade, are able to blend in enough, whereas her brother David draws perilous attention to himself upon announcing his engagement to a more affluent and observant Jewess. The young fiancés go missing, but the film hangs back with Ilana and her parents, too busy keeping up appearances to process the trauma fully.
Ilana in particular carries on as usual, getting high with her Kabardian lover’s crew when she isn’t at home arguing. Bearing more than a passing resemblance to Virginie Ledoyen circa Cold Water (1994) and Mahjong (1996), Zhovner teems with tomboyish diffidence and grace. The role demands her to be both vulnerable and as fiery as the lion mid-roar emblazoned on her jean jacket, but the jump between these two registers is but a lark in her visibly expansive range, particularly showcased in a party scene soured by talk of Russian ethnic cleansing. In shakier hands, the alliances that emerge amongst the teens according to kinship lines may have seemed didactic, but Balagov adroitly diffuses the tension toward his running concern with sexuality. Such dramaturgical pivots and ace scaling of narrative and thematic scope—it bites off exactly what it can chew—rank the film among the most assured debuts this viewer has seen in a long while. Aleksandr Sokurov ought to sport his designation as artistic mentor proudly, even if his influence isn’t much pronounced, beyond deploying the Academy ratio to terrific effect, honing in on the rhapsodies of the face.
A couple of extraneous scenes early in the film speed over knotty psychological terrain, of siblings under pressure to marry and, by their wriggling libidos, almost to bear the family jewels in their backyard (fortunately, David unveils store-bought gemstones instead). These indiscretions notwithstanding, Tesnota is a scrupulous family portrait. For a writer-director twenty-six years young, the empathetic depiction of parents’ gradually letting their children fly the coop is especially impressive. “They’re just kids,” the father says, as Ilana eavesdrops in front of the kitchen door. “They’re no longer ours,” the mother corrects. “They belong to themselves.” Balagov shows how in fact every family member is an autonomous unit by using color-coding upon their dispersal. David is draped in earthy greens; the mother glows in autumnal yellow hues, and Ilana cools off in blue, hours after nervously pouncing in the stroboscopic red of a nightclub, past the music’s end. Balagov himself hangs back in Nalchik. These were the only Jews he ever knew, a title card explains. He never learned where they wandered next.