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Renata Litvinova The North Wind Review


The North Wind | 2021 IFFR Review

The North Wind | 2021 IFFR Review

Go for Baroque: Litvinova Invokes Her Muses in a Delicious Feast of Opulent Visuals

Renata Litvinova The North Wind Review“Nobody loves anybody and no one is happy,” remarks the matriarchal narrator at the heart of The North Wind, the third feature from actor/writer/director Renata Litvinova, based on her own play. The statement conjures the sentiments of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, wherein “Happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Litvinova most assuredly presents a wholly unique clan of unhappy, potentially preternatural oligarchs in one of the most elegant and sumptuously shot cinematic baubles one is apt to see from any era of the medium.

Margarita’s (Litvinova) narration opens the film, an anxious omniscient voice cutting through a snow swept landscape. With hurried urgency, she announces herself as the matriarch of a mysterious Northern Clan, who have inherited a ‘thirteenth hour’ of life, a period in which they are also at their strongest. But pay no mind to the woman behind the curtain, for we’re projected into the heart of the narrative, so we’re told, at it’s midpoint, backing up thirty years to an extravagant New Year’s Eve at Margarita’s private palace (not terribly unlike the estate in Cristi Puiu’s Malmkrog, 2020), erected in the Russian snowdrifts of the North. Every year, her extended clan meets to ring in the New Year, and we’re introduced to a dizzying cast of characters, some of whom we never return to in full. Details of how they keep their significant wealth, in coffers buried in the tundra (requiring them to periodically excavate the goods), explains their perennial rejuvenation. They reside within a mansion of wonders, chandeliers and candelabras reflecting ornate, opulent interiors housing numerous antiquities. A series of animals reside alongside them, including a reindeer and a crow, who tend to steal their scenes.

Notably, Margarita’s son Benedict (Anton Shagin) has brought home his fiancée Fannie (Uliana Dobrovskaya), a remnant of ‘the real world,’ who dies in a plane crash shortly after this introductory celebration. Her death casts a rippling shadow over their family, as Fannie’s sister Faina (Sofia Ernst) usurps her sibling’s place as Benedict’s bride and eventual mother of his child. But Benedict grows to loathe Faina as he still loves her sister. Their bickering eventually infects the entire family and Margarita forms a devious plan to restore order in their fragile, well-heeled environs.

If the initial sprawling cast of characters feels a bit Tolstoian, Litvinova’s storytelling turns to more of a nightmare fairy tale along the lines of one of the esteemed Russian author’s equally adept descendants, Tatyana Tolstaya, who often blends the banalities of life through extravagant magical flair. However, many will be waiting for The North Wind to build into the supernatural maelstrom Margarita’s opening narration promises.

Lore of the Northern Clan’s supposed ‘thirteenth’ hour of life might as well be a metaphor for their economic privilege in their palatial manor nestled on the outskirts of the Siberian hinterlands. Litvinova’s narrative may spin its wheels as extended, strung together New Year’s celebrations as they’re differentiated only by the changing wardrobe and ornate animals decorating the table of their annual feasts. Increasingly, the petty barbs exchanged between Benedict and his sister-in-law-turned-long-suffering-wife Faina ramp up the melodrama. However, never is there a dull moment in the visual aesthetic, from a rat pulling a carriage to a crow who assists Margarita in lighting her cigarettes, this is a gothic playground of decadent costumes and phenomenal production design. As their unhappiness plunges into a free-fall, the clan’s manor also descends into a state of pronounced decay, their jewels and coins rotting in the coffers under the frozen ground. However, the clan remains physical intact, like beautiful porcelain vampires.

Litvinova cut her teeth as an actor in several productions for Kira Muratova, one of Russia’s most idiosyncratic auteurs. One can see Muratova’s influence on Litvinova’s narrative style, which throws adherence to linear storytelling to the (north) wind but often finds its way back to enough cohesion to deliver an impactful moment of violence, which turns quite suddenly into a shivery splinter of ice-cold neo-noir. This unhappy clan sometimes resembles the potency of Visconti’s eternal The Damned (1969), but Litvinova never brings us to this kind of hysterical emotion (or historical relevancy, natch)—and neither does she seem interested in doing so. Instead, The North Wind feels like some sumptuous restoration of an obscure New Wave oddity – like an undiscovered masterpiece from Wojciech Has (Litvinova’s stunning interiors may look more like a moving painting, but most assuredly Has’ 1973 classic The Hourglass Sanatorium comes to mind).

And then there is Litvinova herself, a peroxide blonde who segues from matriarch to murderess, a beautiful femme fatale fleeing to what seems a predestined train station in the onslaught of her mini empire’s demise. Captivating but cruel, Margarita reads like a portrait of Anna Kavan as fleshed out by Jean Harlow, and even if one eventually could care less about the ship of fools comprising her Northern Clan, she’s a memorable character in a film which begs to be better appreciated upon multiple viewings, when the shock of its beautiful palette can allow one a better chance to focus on impossibly minute details and storytelling cue gliding into the realm of painstakingly subtle.

Lensed by Oleg Lukichev (who has worked as cinematographer for Aleksey German Jr. and Kirill Serebrennikov), The North Wind is a visual splendor, an increasingly rare experience in cinematic vibrancy. Litvinova delivery resides on the same level as Frantisek Vlacil’s black and white wonder, Marketa Lazarova (1967).

Reviewed on February 3rd at the 2021 (virtual) International Rotterdam Film Festival. Big Screen Competition Program. 122 Mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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