We talk a lot about the idea of short films being a sandbox for innovation in visual storytelling. With our curation we endeavor to highlight new types of stories—fresh approaches that you don’t get from TV or Hollywood films. But adjacent to this emphasis on innovation of type, is the possibility to tell familiar stories in a fresh way—highlighting a new perspective on timeless plots. Breathless does this spectacularly via its visual conceit, taking us into the rarely-glimpsed world of synchronized swimming to depict an operatic story of love, jealousy, and betrayal, yet, in a dazzling twist, the camera never leaves the pool.
A random internet video of synchronized swimmers from under the water was meant to trigger laughs, but instead it planted a seed in director Oleksii Sobolev’s mind. In this odd sport, we only see what’s above the surface, while a whole lot happens below. Stumbling upon a powerful metaphor, Sobolev plays with the idea that we only get to see the gorgeous, flawless performance these women deliver with their routine, while all their messy struggles are hidden underneath. Most of their lives are down there, inside the pool, sheltered from our eyes by the surface.
With that idea in mind, the decision was bravely made to have the film be entirely from an underwater point of view. The DP, Grigorii Yablochkin, thus plays an even more critical role that usual. Shooting on an Alexa, Yablochkin employs a collection of gear that he largely made himself (including an underwater dolly!). The cinematography is simply gorgeous and an important part of the storytelling. The routines are mesmerizing and interactions between characters look as graceful as ballet. For an authentic look, Sobolev casted synchronized swimming Russian royalty instead of professional actors. World Champion Anna Udovik and Olympic Champion Angelika Timanina act perform their roles with an expected grace.
Being underwater, the film is dialogue-free, and the lighting and score are thus key components of moving the story along. This is limiting in the amount of nuance that Sobolev and his athlete/actors are able to provide, and as such the film is blunt in terms of its plot development, favoring big gestures that are easily understood and predicted. Yet it is the beauty of the way this familiar story is told that draws you in, and the emphasis on music makes the parallels to ballet even more clear, complete with its melodramatic themes of love and death.
Breathless is part of a bigger project called Piter By, a collection of short films set in Saint Petersburg. This is the second year for the project, and this time out each film stars a band member of legendary Russian rap group Kasta. We look forward to seeing some of the other films in the collection, and as for Sobolev, the filmmaker has a full plate with multiple projects going, including an experimental work in which a classic play is told through modern social media, and a “Black Mirror”-esque spec script which is nearing completion.