The Lover (AKA Lyubovnik) 2002

“She knew how to keep a secret.”

In the Russian film, The Lover middle-aged Mitya (Oleg Yankovsky) is devastated when his wife, 37-year old, Elena drops dead of a heart attack. As he mourns and tries to readjust to life without her, he finds a discarded love letter written to another man. Mitya discovers that his wife had a long-term affair that began shortly after their marriage. Mitya begins questioning his wife’s friends and relatives about the affair and discovers the identity of the other man, former army officer Vanya (Sergei Gamash).

This is a remarkably subtle film–a character study that focuses on Mitya’s attempts to cope with each new startling phase of discovery. At first he mourns for his dead wife, but then he discovers that he didn’t really know her. Loss, denial, outrage and anger must all be experienced while Mitya pieces together the puzzle of the last 16 years of his life. Almost against his will, Mitya begins to establish a relationship with Vanya, and it begins badly with hostility and accusations–as if they still have something left to fight over. But both of these men are solitary souls who loved the same woman, and just as she eluded them from total possession in life, she now eludes them both in her death. And this leaves them both with a vague feeling of disquiet and many questions. Who did she ‘really’ love? Would she ever have left her husband? Why did she remain with him? And who is the father of her child?

This quiet study in human anguish is beautifully acted and accompanied by exquisite, perfectly composed cinematography. Both the story and the vivid cinematography subtly emphasize that Mitya and Vanya’s homes are only 5 stops apart on the same tramline that conveniently runs in front of both of their homes. The tramline is the symbolic representation of the connections and the distance we maintain through our relationships, and it is to the cinematographer’s credit that trams are portrayed here so beautifully. At nighttime there are scenes of snow swirling in front of tram lights, two trams passing each other across a deserted town square, and flashes of electricity spark briefly from the power line as the tram moves slowly off into the dusk. The film asks the question–How well can you ever really know another human being? And the answer is unsettling. Directed by Valeri Tadorovsky, The Lover is in Russian with English subtitles.

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