Credit: IFFR
by Daniel Gorman Film

The North Wind | Renata Litvinova

February 9, 2021

A bizarre parable that doubles as a kind of fractured fairy tale, The North Wind is a grab bag of vaguely surrealist tropes surrounding a group of grotesque caricatures. After a brief prologue (shot in an ugly digital approximation of black and white) that sees figures fleeing from an exploding building, there follows some mumbo-jumbo about a wealthy family that possessed a special clock with a 13th and 25th hour. The film then segues into ugly HD digital color and proceeds to introduce us to this group of decadent, vaguely aristocratic malcontents: the matriarch, Margarita (Renata Litvinova, also the film’s writer and director), who narrates this tale; her son, Benedict (Anton Shagin); his fiancé, Fannie (Svetlana Khodchenkova); and various other cousins, visitors, and hangers-on. The family lives in a perpetual New Year’s Eve celebration, and the film is composed of a collection of scenes surrounding each annual dinner. Characters come and go, but there’s little to demarcate the passage of time in any traditional sense. These people are comfortably nestled in amber, with no exposure to the outside world, drowning in champagne and petty, passive-aggressive gamesmanship — a menagerie of freaks, which Litvinova’s camera revels in sneering at. There is a loose narrative of sorts, although it progresses in fits and starts. When Fannie dies in an airplane crash, Benedict marries her sister, Faina (Sofia Ernst). They have a son, Hugo, who Margarita is convinced will lead the family back to greatness, but Benedict has no love for Faina, and in a bit of Vertigo-adjacent madness, pines over Fannie’s ghost. Faina tries in vain to win his affections, but eventually runs afoul of Margarita, who takes steps to rid her family of this interloper. That’s the crux, as it were, but the film makes room for all manner of absurd subplots during its interminable two-hour runtime. 

The North Wind frequently feels like a variation on Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel, except Litvinova ignores her own structural conceit just often enough to render it useless. Elsewhere, the film’s practical artistry is undeniably gauche: fastidious attention is paid to the flamboyant production and costume design — the family home is a baroque nightmare, and each successive outfit worn by Margarita is more outlandish than the last — and the hair and makeup design of each character becomes a parade of increasingly outlandish buffoonery. This is all obviously supposed to be at least a little funny, but intentional camp is a tricky needle to thread. More often than not, the film simply sits there, with little variation or tonal modulation, a slog that’s frequently interesting to look at but which grows quickly wearisome. Litvinova gives an admittedly towering performance, but her prowess as an actress doesn’t extend to either writing or directing (at least this time out), and she has a tendency to literalize or otherwise spell out her themes, as the family home becomes dilapidated and overgrown with junk while their fortune (which they keep buried in the ground) gradually begins to rot from the inside out. As a dark comedy, The North Wind is more belabored than amusing; as a critique (or skewering) of the upper class, it’s obnoxiously obvious. Some odd, anachronistic needle drops and a frustratingly oblique coda only confirm that The North Wind is more a mishmash of disparate, mostly cliched ideas than a fully-formed artistic or political statement.

Published as part of IFFR 2021 — Dispatch 3.