Reflection lacks the scale of Vasyanovych’s Atlantis, but its brutalist Wes Anderson-esque tenor makes for a difficult yet still hopeful study of war.
While Ukrainian writer/director Valentin Vasyanovych has been making films for a number of years, his breakthrough didn’t come until 2019’s Atlantis, which garnered awards at several festivals and became his first film to receive some kind of wider distribution. Atlantis detailed a hypothetical, near-future Ukraine that had been devastated following the conclusion of the ongoing (and now distressingly escalated) Russian-Ukrainian conflict. His new film, Reflection, takes place in 2014 and looks back to the beginning of the armed struggle. The two films form a fascinating diptych, each informing and expanding upon the other. In lieu of Atlantis’ post-apocalyptic landscapes and broken-down industrial monuments, Reflection begins with life still maintaining a semblance of normalcy. Surgeon Serhiy (Roman Lutskyi) is attending his daughter Polina’s (Nika Myslyska, Vasyanovych‘s real-life daughter) birthday party alongside his ex-wife, Olha (Nadia Levchenko), and her boyfriend Andriy (Andriy Rymaruk, the star of Atlantis). Andriy is aggressively macho, detailing life on the frontlines while downing shots; Serhiy is more meek, but the next scene sees him trying and failing to save a wounded soldier. Learning that the soldier was transported for 6 hours from the frontlines to the hospital, and that he might have lived had doctors gotten to him sooner, Serhiy decides he must do something more proactive. But while traveling to volunteer medical services at the front, he’s attacked and captured by Russian partisans. What follows is a long stretch where Serhiy is forced to both endure and witness brutal torture, then inspect fellow Ukrainians and declare them alive or dead, resuscitating them when able to do so. It’s harrowing in the extreme, and when he is eventually released through a prisoner exchange, Serhiy is a shell of his former self. In his absence, Andriy has gone MIA, and both Polina and Olha are wracked with the despair of not knowing whether he’s dead or alive. As Serhiy tries to reconnect with his daughter, he also begins to use his contacts to confirm Andriy’s death and give his ex-wife much-needed closure.
Of course, finding and identifying the remains of fallen comrades made up the bulk of Atlantis’ narrative, but here that same preoccupation with honoring the dead takes on a more immediate, personal dimension. While Reflection lacks the same monumental tableau as Atlantis, with huge industrial machinery and scarred, ruptured landscapes that frequently dwarf the characters, its compositions are more human-scaled. Working as his own editor and cinematographer, Vasyanovych utilizes almost exclusively locked-down master shots that allow scenes to play out in real-time. Occasionally the camera will slowly hone in on a character, and there are several uninterrupted long shots that are startlingly complex, but otherwise it’s static, emphasizing the composition of architecture, windows, and mirrors to create frames within frames. Like a brutalist Wes Anderson, or Roy Andersson for that matter, Vasyanovych meticulously constructs his own little universe in which to observe the horrors of war, forcing his audience to endure them as well. It’s a difficult film, although not a hopeless one. When everything has gone to hell, there are still the acts of grace and humanity that give suffering meaning.
Originally published as part of Venice International Film Festival — Dispatch 2.