Stranger (Storonniy) (2019)

Stranger (Storonniy) opens with two discrete sets of text (and closes with a third). The first is a quote (“…I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men…”) from that celebrated author of ‘weird fiction’ and cosmic horror, H.P. Lovecraft. The second offers bare statistics on how often a person goes missing on Earth (once every three minutes, or five million per year). Sure enough, this feature from writer/director Dmitriy Tomashpolskiy (F 63.9 Bolezn lyubvi, 2013) will combine a missing persons case (or several) with its own preternatural mythology, in a mystery plot that proves compelling and confounding in equal measure.

It starts with a disappearance. After a team of six female synchronised swimmers vanishes, impossibly, into thin air (or, more strictly, water) in the middle of a public performance, Inspector Gluhovsky (Anastasiya Yevtushenko) is unable to find any trace of them – her only unsolved case in an otherwise perfect record of police work. So five years later, she dives into an apparently similar case: the unexplained disappearance of an unnamed woman from a bath (in a locked room) at a luxurious water therapy clinic that is built alongside a sewage treatment facility (where the city’s waste is purified). 

Gluhovsky goes undercover to the clinic, but not before she encounters another ‘missing’ person: the shabby, crumpled, somewhat lugubrious Zezulia (Sergey Kalantay) who is indignant that the family he abandoned a week earlier has not yet even reported him missing. This ageing figure is so undistinguished, so absent, that even Gluhovsky, despite her usual attention to detail, gets his name wrong – and after she promises to be in touch if she ever receives a report, she leaves him in his estrangement, and he literally vanishes, disappearing in a visual glitch before reappearing. Just about the only thing that makes this mere ghost of man stand out in any way is precisely his maleness, in a film where otherwise everyone is notably female.

The clinic is place of secrets and stratagems, where the conspiratorial doctors on staff know exactly who Gluhovsky is before she arrives, and are setting her up for… something. Meanwhile, rooms are organised according to the ‘magic numbers’ in nuclear physics, other clients swimming in the communal pool with Gluhovsky suddenly vanish, Gluhovsky keeps hearing the sound of a child crying, the library contains a copy of the Lovecraftian Necronomicon as well as an ancient tome on divination by sneezing, a mirror reveals a toad-like monster, a doll and a painting come to life, and a murder takes place at noon every day. In other words, this is not a normal institution, but a mysterious interzone where time and space operate under their own rules, and where a woozy sense of disorientation prevails – although the clinic is, like any sanatorium, ultimately a place of restorative cleansing and healing. Like cinema, it offers catharsis.

All this makes Stranger an elusive and abstract object, as fluid and hard to grip firmly as the water which dominates its imagery. At some fundamental level it is a detective story, but the incidents that it investigates are irrational, as are the methods used by Gluhovsky and her predecessor/partner Klavdiia (Darya Tregubova). There is something Lynchian about the way scenes and ideas play out with a surreal illogic that the straight-faced characters barely seem to register. There are tropes here borrowed expressly from horror (“What can I say?” as one character comments, “Usually a doll is a mandatory element of horror movies”), as well as from science fiction, even though the film never really feels like either. Rather, this is something altogether more metaphysical, with a strong psychological core. 

Although the film’s events at first seem arbitrary, in the end, as identities shift and realities blur, everything connects in a satisfying if slippery manner. Along the way, swoon at the exotic design of the clinic, at DP Serhii Symchok’s elegantly colour-filtered lighting, and at the obliquities and excursions of Tomashpolskiy’s screenplay, which ever so deliberately circles around the drain before revealing the hidden truth behind its missing person(s)  and bringing a purging rest to its patient zero. Stranger is a little bit like Wojciech Has’ The Hourglass Sanatorium (1973), a little bit like Giuseppe Tornatore’s A Pure Formality (1994) and a little bit like Pater Sparrow’s 1 (2009) – but mostly it is content to splash around in its own pool, hoping to submerge itself in your memory deeply enough that it should never truly be condemned to oblivion. 

Stranger may at first be stylised as a cerebral affair, with every character playing their rôles in an emotionless deadpan – but by the end the feelings wash over, and a real empathy emerges, decoded by a final, personal text. Take a dip in its waters, to be mystified, muddled – and then moved.  

© Anton Bitel