It’s possible that the very first casualty of war is not truth, but nuance. Since Maksym Nakonechnyi’s grimly disturbing “Butterfly Vision” was conceived and shot, the protracted Donbas conflict during which it is set has flared into all-out war following Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. It makes the film’s inclusion in this year’s Un Certain Regard lineup an acutely timely statement. With the Cannes Film Festival, like all fests, under intense scrutiny for what its selections suggest about its political stance, this Ukrainian co-production, with its Ukrainian director, cast and crew, is certainly a boost to its anti-Russia bona fides.
But the film’s actual story — which problematizes any more obviously pertinent narrative of unblemished Ukrainian heroism — presents a far more complex picture. Its perceptive pessimism is to its credit as a film. But such a coldly self-critical assessment of the nation’s internal divisions faces an uncertain short-term future, during these hot times when the appetite, both at home and in the international community, is for more straightforward expressions of patriotic Ukrainian solidarity. It would be unfortunate if this contextual thicket were to obscure the merits of “Butterfly Vision,” which, while certainly not reinventing the war-is-hell wheel, is interesting to analyse in formal terms, especially in its sometimes effective, sometimes glib use of modern tech.
Amid DP Khrystyna Lyzohub’s expertly framed but relentlessly olive-drab handheld cinematography, some visual relief comes from satellite targeting imagery, which sits alongside TV coverage, drone footage and online video clips, tacitly suggesting an equivalence between the surveillance machinery of war, its mass-media treatment and the intrusion of social media into our everyday lives. Often, flashbacks and semi-surreal interludes are introduced by glitchy, pixellated transitions implying that even the way we remember has been impacted by the aesthetics of the electronic devices that have so colonized our daily experience. Certainly, this is true for Lilia (Rita Burkovska), nicknamed “Butterfly,” a Ukrainian aerial recon expert who, as the film begins, is being bartered in a prisoner exchange.
Lilia, whom we soon discover was raped while in Russian captivity and is now pregnant with her rapist’s child, quickly realizes that the hero’s welcome she received on her return does not last long. Partly this is to do with her miserable living situation, with her soldier husband Tokha (Liubomyr Valivots) gradually revealed to be a boorish, racist bully. But it’s also down to Lilia’s difficult readjustment to civilian life, when she carries a constant reminder of her trauma in her womb, and in the cruel, deep scars that mark her back like she was clawed by an animal.
Burkovska brings to Lilia a kind of hollowed-out exhaustion which, despite the attempts to put us right inside her psychology, keeps her at arm’s length from us: Mostly, she simply reflects back the reactions of those around her. There’s the smothering pride of her mother, from whom she keeps her baby’s paternity a secret. There’s her brief, unwanted status as a kind of celebrity (“What happened to her gorgeous hair?” wonders one online commenter inanely), and the more desultory due paid her at a particularly joyless-looking veteran’s dinner. There’s also outright dismissal and hostility. This last she experiences in an acidly observed scene aboard a bus when the driver refuses to accept her free travel pass, and all but one of the other passengers back him up. It is one moment you can imagine landing very differently now, versus when Nakonechnyi and co-writer Iryna Tsilyk (who directed the terrific doc “The Earth is as Blue as an Orange”) were penning the screenplay, when the war in far-off Donbas felt to many in Kyiv like little more than a distant, ongoing rumble.
Worse is yet to come. Tokha, antsy now that he’s demobbed and frustrated by Lilia’s entirely understandable withdrawal from him, gets involved with a local extremist militia, and ringleads an attack on a local Roma encampment. That this comes to us (and Lilia) via Tokha’s online livestream, complete with floating thumbs-up emojis and excitedly supportive chat bubbles, is the film’s most sickeningly skillful use of social media imagery. But again, the depiction of an overtly fascist action by a Ukrainian soldier gaining even niche support among ordinary Ukrainians is deeply discomfiting, when “de-Nazification” is among the blatantly false Russian justifications for the war.
To be clear, “Butterfly Vision” evinces no shred of sympathy for such propagandist Russian claims — mainly because it evinces little sympathy for anyone, save its rather blank, shellshocked protagonist. Yet Putin’s regime does end up feeling like an almost abstract enemy-without, in a story most engaged with identifying the enemy within. Encompassing racism, complacency, machismo and misogyny (at one point, Tokha is shamed by the accusation of “hiding behind his wife’s belly”) such uncompromising national self-analysis is a brave and risky proposition at any time; right now, it feels almost reckless.
Apparently butterflies, like the one unnecessarily inserted into several scenes to give a dreamlike flutter to the otherwise unyieldingly gritty texture, see in vivid color. They’re even able to apprehend hues invisible to the human eye. So it’s ironic that “Butterfly Vision,” accompanied by the sporadic brooding atonality of Dzian Baban’s score, should operate within such a small section of the spectrum. (A dog, going by the lugubriously amusing name of Tarantino, provides the only touch of humor.) It’s both impressive and daunting that Nakonechnyi should attempt to find nuance within that narrow register, when the world his film is being released into is far more readily receptive to war stories painted in high-contrast black-and-white than to its many shades of moral and literal gray.
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