Inhale-Exhale [Вдох – Выдох]
The film’s title resonates with Dykhovichnyi’s last name (in Russian “to breath”), a quirk that might explain why many critics consider Inhale-Exhale the director’s personal statement, whether of an art-house or a soft porn variety. Opening with a brooding shot of black water—a repeated motif in the film—which is ripped by a car plunging in at full speed, the film is a meditation on the nature of love, marriage, sexual desire, and the dialectics of freedom and belonging. Misha (Mirkurbanov), a middle aged architect, hires a high-end prostitute Vera (Volkova) to spend ten hours with him. To break up the initial awkwardness, they start sharing stories about past sexual encounters—a set-up that is reminiscent of Isaak Babel’s story “My First Fee.” Unlike Babel’s story, in which the art of storytelling transforms life, redeems the affair, and helps the characters communicate, Inhale-Exhale plunges its heroes deep into the dark waters of memory, which is as faulty as it is traumatic. Twenty minutes into the film Vera “enters” Misha’s memories. This leads some to suggest that Vera “merges” with Misha’s former wife—a kind of verbally induced Persona-syndrome à la Bergman, while others claim that she is his former wife, who became a prostitute after their marriage fell apart when Vera had an affair with a woman (played by Dukhovichnyi’s wife).
The film can thus be read as an exploration of an actual past or as a trip down Freudian lane: after all, we are first introduced to Misha on the “couch” at a therapy session. The script by Novototskii and Moiseenko evokes their earlier work on Andrei Zviagintsev’s The Return (2003); in both films, simple events suggest a hidden, deeper meaning that is encoded in the cinematographically flawless world of objects and figures. Yet where the implied metaphysical dimension of The Return originates in the ideologically charged Father figure, the melodramatic excess of Inhale-Exhale flows in the free—and largely uncharted—waters of post-Soviet family drama. Cinematographer Osadchii crafts every shot to be a self-sufficient, aesthetically perfect visual artifact—which not only isolates the narrative in time and space, but leaves it emotionally vacant. Meanwhile, the dialogue creates its own, and more disturbing excess: confessions of sex that resemble rape, of rape that is “pleasurable” to the victim, and of sexual desire triggered by the knowledge of “ruining someone’s life.”
While the images suggest attempts to establish ties between human beings, the dialogue is always a monologue: the “I” is only looking for itself and can communicate with the other only by using him or her. As film critic Andrei Plakhov argues, in its sensuous visual style, fragmented narration and—more importantly—its preoccupation with “personal identity in the age of consumption,” Dykhovichnyi’s film returns to European and American cinema of the 1960-70s, a “chamber cinema with big breath.” In this respect, the dawn of the new Russian embourgoisement, with its cult of consumption, glamour, and surface, is perhaps the most revealing social context for the film.