There’s something truly delicious about a film which toys with your expectations; a film possessing the temerity to state its own vision, even as it identifies the areas in which it knows the audience is looking. Rather than focus the narrative chronologically, writer/director Diana Galimzyanova has The Lightest Darkness play out in the present with events moving forward and also with all the recollections being presented in reverse chronology. As expected, this film noir explores the nastier side, the darker side, of humanity and, knowing this, Galimzyanova leans into it, even as she twists the style, fashioning it into something new. Having already traveled across the globe visiting festival after festival, Galimzyanova’s The Lightest Darkness is now available on Bluray, DVD, and streaming.
One fateful morning, Private Investigator R. I. Musin (Rashid Aitouganov) boards a train to travel to his uncle’s estate. Sharing his cabin is Arina (Irina Gevorgyan), a Ph.D. candidate working as a screenwriter for a video game, and Elina (Marina Voytuk), a popular pianist. But this isn’t just any train ride and these aren’t just any passengers. This train is the site of six murders across the last six months and Elina is there to research the murders for the video game she’s writing. Determined to uncover the identity of the serial killer known as the Fruiterer (so called for the penchant for leaving a single untouched strawberry with the body of each victim), Elina interviews everyone she meets, and everyone, it seems, possesses a secret agenda.
Obfuscation is the key ingredient which makes The Lightest Darkness interesting and it pervades every corner of the film. The first thing the audience sees is a hand loading pills and knives, along with clothes, into a suitcase which sits next to a paper proclaiming a sixth body has been claimed by the Fruiterer. The obvious thing is to connect the newspaper to the person with the suitcase, but is the obvious thing the right thing? That’s what the film toys with for the duration. Telling the story of Darkness in chronological order would not only remove the veil of fog which surrounds everyone’s intentions, but the film would be far less engaging. Instead, the audience is constantly trying to wring out the truth from every scene, every interaction, like some perverted form of Clue. At first, the idea that what we, the audience, believe to be true is wrong, is frustrating, until it becomes clear that the man we’re following, Musin himself, is also in a state of confusion thanks to a medication he takes for anxiety. At which point, though the fog doesn’t clear until the end, the intent of the fog is plainly visible. Doing this makes the reverse chronology less of a gimmick to entrance the audience and more of a purposeful narrative tool.
The general sense of befuddlement within Darkness largely comes from the fact that characters are introduced properly long after the audience has spent time with them. It makes the initial meetings the audience observes more confusing and the value of each interaction uncertain. For example, the reversed portion of the film indicates that Musin is married to a controlling woman named Izolda (Kolya Neukoelln). We meet her in the strangest of ways before we know her name, her personality, or even how Musin engages with her personally. As such, the audience is inclined to create their own ideas of who Izolda is. In a way, the reverse chronological order is an ingenious method of extending Musin’s confusion to the audience. Adding to this, Galimzyanova frequently places her characters within an obscured frame, creating a psychological suggestion that not everything is at it seems. In an early scene, characters are seen talking, but their dialogue is deliberately muffled as we observe Musin trying to overhear a conversation. The camera peers into where the characters are talking, then shifts to show the audience the perspective of the chatters and what they might see of Musin’s eye and half his face looking through an open door. In another, we observe Musin walk into a stairway only to realize it’s his reflection as he walks straight toward us, then behind and out of frame. Later, while chatting with Arina and Elina, Musin is seen only via his reflection. Frankly, Galimzyanova is the only person that should be trusted within the whole of Darkess, but then, she’s the one pulling the strings.
A film using such a controlling technique in all areas of its narrative requires strong performances to keep the audience hooked, except here the performances are strange at best. Sometimes it seems like the cast is merely reading lines, while other times seem to be in the moment, authentically conversing between each other. As the film carries on, however, and more information is revealed, the question of performance becomes a complicated one. Hardly anyone is who they seem, so it becomes difficult to pin-point what is a weakness in performance from the actor and what might be purposeful performative behavior from the character. The only one whose odd behavior seems authentic at all times is Neukoelln’s psychotherapist Izolda Ivanoff – a femme fatale whose mere presence should make anyone’s blood run cold instantly. It’s made abundantly clear from the start that there’s something off about this character, yet, because the whole of The Lightest Darkness is focused on converging the threads of the Musin and the Fruiterer, there’s a question that hangs in the air. Is what the audience observes a recollection of events or the events themselves? The beauty of Galimzyanova’s direction is that the answer is difficult to discern. Without that anchor, not only are the characters suspect, but the performances as well.
The Lightest Darkness is frequently presented as the first ever female-directed Russian film noir with reverse chronology. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant because The Lightest Darkness makes it clear that Galimzyanova’s got some incredible promise as a writer and director. Galimzyanova crafted her precise vision and, through funding via IndieGoGo, has taken it from festival to festival, by which inclusion alone suggests she’s a talent to keep an eye out for. Granted, The Lightest Darkness leans so hard into obscurity that when it aims to stick the landing in something concrete, the whole weakens, creating questions that undermine the narrative itself, though not the mechanism used to tell it. However, it’s undeniably clear that Galimzyanova painstakingly poured over every scene and it’s hard not to enjoy the finished product.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.