“Winter Journey” Tells Tale of Troubled Relationship in Troubled Russia

The theft of a pair of headphones are the start of an unusual and extremely volatile relationship for a refined conservatory student and an animalistic street thug in Winter Journey (Zimney put), the directorial debut of Russian actors Sergei Taramajev and Liubov Lvova.

The controversial title, which has attracted attention because of its inclusion of gay characters in a time when gay “propaganda” is forbidden in Russia, has only been screened at a few smaller festivals at home (it was turned down by the major Russian film events), has now started to screen abroad and has reportedly finally been cleared for release in Russia sometime this spring with an 18+ rating.

Western viewers will probably find the whole controversy a storm in a teacup, since the film contains all of one same-sex kiss and no nudity or sex. That said, the camerawork of Mikhail Krichman, the cinematographer of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s The Return and Elena, and the fully inhabited performances of lead actors Aleksei Frandetti and Evgeniy Tkachuk, ensure that Winter Journey is worth seeing, even if the ending doesn’t exactly make the film the feature-length equivalent of an It-Gets-Better video.

The title, sometimes translated as Winter Path in English, refers to the Winterreise cycle of Schubert songs that Erik (Frandetti), a conservatory student, is preparing for an all-important audition. After his teacher has told him he’s useless and needs to focus and work harder, the day gets even worse when, on the bus ride home, a vagrant ruffian, Lyokha (Tkachuk), simply takes Erik’s headphones and phone. The aspiring singer is too stunned and probably also too scared to do anything, though when law enforcement officials chase Lyokha when the bus stops, Erik finds himself in the possession of the criminal’s key hanger.

Taramajev and Lvova, who make their debut here not only as directors but also as screenwriters, quickly establish that Lyokha is as ferocious and dangerous as Erik’s refined and non-aggressive. Though his teacher recommends a steady diet of sleep, walks and Schubert, Erik feels lost and frustrated and instead hangs out with his sort-of boyfriend (Vlamidir Mishukov) and decadent gay friends until the boozy early morning hours (these scenes’ll feel like something from decades ago for Western audiences).

Not disturbed in the slightest by his criminal ways — one actually gets the impression the mugger is quite proud of how he manages to scrape by — Lyokha uses Erik’s stolen cell phone to get hold of Eric and ask him to return his key hanger, which is a kind of talisman. This brings the two together again and initiates an uneasy dance of sorts in which both characters start to realize they might be attracted to the other or at least want to spend more time in each other’s company, probably exactly because they seem to be polar opposites.

The writer-directors don’t push the two into a relationship but instead linger on the strange, sometimes magical and occasionally disturbing moments before their only kiss might take things to the next level. Among the best scenes is a playful, almost child-like frolic in the snow and Erik’s final audition, three days later, with Lyokha waiting in the hall, clearly moved by the singing of his new, sort-of friend but at the same time disturbed by admitting to himself he has these feelings at all. It’s also clear from the get-go that their their attraction is as much based on their contrasting backgrounds and class differences as on their shared loneliness; the fact they are both men almost feels incidental.

Krichman’s roving handheld camerawork is the opposite of his precisely composed images for Zvyagintsev and his images here suggest that the amorphous quality of the men’s rapport is so shapeless the camera has to constantly roam around them, on the frozen and wintry streets of Moscow, in order to try and capture it. The beautifully performed Schubert songs are the other highlight of this low-budget film’s technical credits.

Tashkent-born theater actor Frandetti has a striking face on which his character’s troubling thoughts are effortlessly projected, while Turkmenistan-born rising star Tkachuk (The Edge) is a frightening presence with an imposing physicality who slowly seems to mellow but who finally remains an enigmatic and unpredictable person even for himself.

“Winter Jouney” will be shown at Frameline 38 San Francisco International Film Festival Monday, June 23 at 9:55 p.m. at the Victoria Theatre.  Go to www.frameline.org.