“I won’t live in a mausoleum,” complains singer/composer Olya (Marina Vasileva), in Mara, of the grand if monolithic apartment building into which she is about to move temporarily with her husband Andrey (Semyon Serzin). “Come on,” Andrey insists more encouragingly, “it’s a constructivist landmark!”
In a way, they are both right about the nature of the building. For this Soviet-era edifice, desirably located by the Moskva river not far from the Kremlin, is both architectural wonder, and full of ghosts. Nonetheless Andrey has not been entirely honest about their reason for moving there. Olya supposes that they are just getting away from the home where she, while pregnant, was assaulted by three intruders. The incident made her lose the baby, and has caused tension ever since between her and Andrey (who fled the scene to raise the alarm). Olya just wants to put the trauma behind her – but what she does not know is that Andrey has consulted an outsider to help his wife forget. Recommended by Andrey’s work colleague, the mycologist and modern-day witch Mara (Aleksandra Revenko) agrees to erase Olya’s memory of what happened, using a special mushroom and some magic, on condition that the couple house-sit her apartment – and keep her plants humidified – while she is away for two months. Secretly given the medicine, Olya quickly returns to being the loving wife she was before – but then both she and Andrey start seeing people and things in the apartment, and panic and paranoia once again invade their marriage.
“They’re the ghosts of previous owners,” Mara explains down the phone to Andrey of the apartment’s uninvited visitors. “This process can involve side effects.” Side effect, or Pobochnyi effekt, is also the original Russian title of this directorial debut from Aleksey Kazakov, in which the couple’s shared anguish – Olya’s hurt and Andrey’s guilt – resonates perfectly with Mara’s own much older history, engendering a painful psychodrama (of estrangement and entrapment, recrimination and revenge) staged within the shifting confines of the apartment.
Mara is a true original, but its closest analogues are Dario Argento’s Suspiria (1977) and especially its sequel Inferno (1980), and more recently Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013), which similarly merge music, witchcraft and some very irrational architecture. For not only does the modern apartment in Kazakov’s film feature a locked room, but beyond that another, much shabbier hidden apartment, and a psychedelically coloured damp cell that is also a portal into more psychological realms of traumatic memory. Meanwhile, in the English-language version at least, the sense that we are watching something akin to a giallo is only amplified by the dubbed language, which brings its own side effects of artifice and alienation to the mix. It is a disorienting hallucinatory construction, built both on a long history of monstrous (or impotent) masculinity and bitterly scarred femininity – and on the grief, pain and deception that can undermine any household. As a bricks-and-mortar anatomisation of emotional problems, Kazakov’s film takes us to some very strange, hidden places in a relationship – and leaves us to ponder just how healthy is a therapy which involves externalising the rot within and burning the witch.
strap: Aleksey Kazakov’s unsettling horror is a heady combination of couple’s therapy, witchcraft and Soviet architecture.
© Anton Bitel