To start the New Year, the Museum introduces First Look, a new annual showcase curated by Dennis Lim, Rachael Rakes, and David Schwartz. This two-weekend program—which brings together some of the most invigorating and inventive voices in contemporary world cinema, including established and emerging filmmakers—affirms our belief in cinema as a flourishing art form. To supplement the program, Moving Image Source is running a series of essays on all the feature films that are being shown. Check back daily from now through next weekend for new articles.
The third feature film by Andrei Zvyagintsev marks a notable departure for this rising auteur. While Elena received almost uniformly positive notices following its premiere last year at Cannes, its reception engendered a bit of confusion, both factual and, as I'll elaborate below, conceptual. The film was one of three late additions to the Cannes lineup, along with late-breaking arrivals by politically persecuted Iranian filmmakers Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. Elena had been tipped for a Competition slot, but instead the programmers gave it a slot in Un Certain Regard. (A previously announced UCR film, Michel Hazanavicius's The Artist, was bumped into Competition instead.) However, throughout the festival and long afterward, many critics and reporters persisted in erroneously referring to Zvyagintsev's film as a Competition selection, and lead performer Nadezhda Markina as a potential Best Actress prizewinner. Clearly, more than most other "slighted" films, Elena seems to have been inscrutably suspended from the station to which its obvious quality would have entitled it.
Nadezhda Markina in Elena
By the same token, many audiences and critics familiar with Zvyagintsev's earlier films have evinced a degree of uncertainty in terms of how to "read" Elena. That is, there is a dual recognition. The filmmaker has indubitably made a step in a new direction, but it remains difficult to avoid processing Elena through many of the conceptual templates more suitable for Zvyagintsev's previous films, The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007). Those films are noteworthy for taking place in a somewhat indistinct Russian "present," which, while clearly contemporary—the cars, the clothes, etc.—avoids many of the overt markings that would ground them in a specified time and place. We know that The Return is set sometime in a grim post-Soviet era, in a collapsing factory town. Likewise, The Banishment takes place in a rustic family cabin somewhere in the countryside, near enough to city life that the story's participants are distinguished from the peasantry in manners and comportment.
But beyond this, Zvyagintsev chose to cloak his first two films in a hypnotic abstraction, poised between meticulous formalism and a hovering sense of the allegorical, archetypal, or even the spiritual. The father in The Return, who suddenly comes back into his sons' lives after an unexplained absence, is gruff, taciturn, inscrutable. His interactions with the boys, along with their movement through the generalized ruins of industrial Russia, give the impression that he is both the Freudian and the Communist Father, the return of a sexual and/or political Repressed. That there is no place for him in the new social arrangement, and that his oldest son must do away with him as an interloper seems as determined as Zvyagintsev's slow, grinding tracking shots through the slate-gray rainstorm.
Likewise, The Banishment (based on William Saroyan's novel The Laughing Matter) is ostensibly a tale of infidelity gradually revealed, as it gnaws away at the fabric of trust in a marriage and, eventually, the entire family unit. However, Zvyagintsev stages this drama with an articulated precision that almost drains the scenario of all personal identification, preferring to symbolize it, even beatify it. Shafts of light through windows form crosses, as do royal blue trinkets and shabby-chic tapestries. The surrounding landscape, all dry fields of grass and solitary trees, is a painterly vision of isolation from both worldly concern and intervention's distance. Equal parts Days of Heaven and Christina's World, this environment forms a kind of Eden, which, as the deception comes to light, becomes more and more fraught with physical uncertainty. Again, Zvyagintsev's masterful use of glacial tracking shots and tightly controlled rack focus describes the space The Banishment's figures occupy, or more precisely, places us deep inside the tactile, deterministic zone whose contours form, and limit, their possibilities. (In terms of his unique work with film space, Zvyagintsev's right-hand man is cinematographer Mikhail Krichman. They have worked together on all three features, and Krichman also shot 2010's exquisite Silent Souls.)
The fact that Zvyagintsev's first two films have foregrounded archetypes and allegories (the Patriarchal Struggle, the Holy Family facing expulsion from the Garden), together with the director's preternaturally gifted cinematic modernism, have prompted comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky. This genealogy is not wholly off base. In The Return's damaged paterfamilias (Konstantin Lavronenko) one can certainly detect echoes of the title character of Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979); the movement through the homes of the families in both The Return and The Banishment are methodical and haunted, otherworldly processions through memory and mindspace in a manner that could be said to recall Tarkovskian efforts as disparate as Ivan's Childhood (1962), The Mirror (1975), and Solaris (1972). Above all, Zvyagintsev's first two films cultivate a tense, implacable mood of suspension between two ways of seeing the world, something they seem to share with the "mystical" Tarkovsky. They depict events in a recognizably material world, while imbuing that same world with unseen forces, glimpsed as a result of Zvyagintsev's tendency to delicately "sculpt in time."
Then again, comparisons to Tarkovsky, like those to Ozu, Bresson, Hitchcock, or a select few other axiomatic figures in cinema history, can often be overstated. This is certainly the case where Russian cinema is concerned, since it seems that an entire swath of creative production following Socialist Realism can be traced back to Tarkovsky's influence. But of course, this is only part of the story. To fixate too exclusively on the allegorical trappings of Zvyagintsev's films is to misconstrue or ignore the fact that they do have a footing in the present day. The Return is also about anxiety regarding masculinity in an era of rampant thuggery, arguably from Putin on down. The Banishment adheres to Biblical patriarchy until in the end, Zvyagintsev and scriptwriter Oleg Negin (who also wrote Elena) shift perspectives, resulting in a damning indictment of stoic macho prerogative. These are critiques in which Tarkovsky the mystic would have had little if any interest.
This brings us to Elena. Zvyagintsev's latest is, as I stated, a dramatic departure, most notably in that it represents a fully and obviously contemporary story, grounded in the recognizable mundanities of urban Russian life. We are miles away from the fabled "Zone" of Tarkovsky. But this is still recognizably a Zvyagintsev film. The first image we see is a shot directly outside the glass-and-steel, Mies van der Rohe-style apartment Elena and Vladimir share in the center of town. It appears to be the mid-autumn; there are no leaves on the trees. Krichman's camera is focused on a tree branch in the foreground, a bare, jutting twig. A slow, elegant focus shift takes us through virtually the lens's entire depth of field, as the midsection of the tree reveals itself. We see a swallow in its branches, looking around. Then eventually, the frame and finally the interior of the apartment come into focus. At that very moment, just before Zvyagintsev cuts, a second bird zips into the frame, lighting upon this cold, dead, but visually active tree. Besides this shot, and the final rhyming shot with which Elena concludes, "nature" as such will not be a particularly important element within this film.
Nadezhda Markina and Andrey Smirnov in Elena
Instead, Elena treats exteriors, for the most part, as conduits. The basic plot centers around two locales: Elena and Vladimir's handsome apartment and the hideous public housing block where Elena's son Sergei (Aleksey Rozin) and his family live, a crumbling, monumentalist concrete disaster stationed virtually across the street from a nuclear reactor. Elena is shown walking, riding the train, and then walking again between these two "homes," although trudging is more like it. Zvyagintsev doesn't spare us the film-time or distance in these extended sequences, although he does provide Philip Glass's soundtrack to lighten our load, at least. These are not allegorical spaces, the grasses do not caress the bare thigh, nor do the overcast skies shelter the Russian soul. Given that Elena is attempting to broker a deal between her husband (a businessman with his own money) and her own adult son (a lout who is more than happy to freeload from Elena and her nurses' pension), the terrain between the two of them is literally negotiated.
Given Zvyagintsev's symbolic and allegorical predilections in his previous films, it would be easy to misread, or at least reduce, Elena to a story of class conflict, or at least a family tale onto which Zvyagintsev and Negin have grafted current viewpoints regarding humanism's collapse and the dominance of rapacious capitalist self-interest in contemporary Russia. It is certainly true that the contrast between Vladimir's secure business class—the home, the neighborhood, the Audi, his gym membership—and the circumstances of Sergei, his wife, and two sons, could hardly be more dramatic. (The three cooling towers looming in the background of the Soviet-era slum could almost be said to gild the lily.)
However, what makes Elena such a rich, complex film—and indeed, Zvyagintsev's best by far—is the fact that any sense of allegorical reduction is belied by delicate fillips of human behavior, the sort that cannot be reduced to easy typology. It is odd to me that so many reviews of Elena have fixated on Vladimir as a "cold man," or characterized the Elena-Vladimir marriage as a loveless one. Yes, much of what we see in the film revolves around a tense argument about his giving money to her family. (And really, why should he?) But Zvyagintsev and Negin also leaven the relationship with kind comments ("The porridge is perfect"), everyday interest ("What have you got going on today?"), and of course, desire. Judging the state of an older long-term couple by one fight, and the creature comfort of separate bedrooms, is specious at best.
But of course, everything comes down to the turning point, Elena's major decision that is both shocking and, in a way, darkly comical. More than greed, and certainly more than any desire to provide for her (let's face it) useless son and daughter-in-law, this radical act of desperation is a petulant rebellion, borne from a betrayal that, to Elena, was unthinkable just a day before. When Vladimir's estranged daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadova) pops back into his life, there is no reason to expect that it will create any rift in Elena's comfortable, stable married life. But it does. As a result, Elena takes action, and we can see the agony, the ambivalence, and finally the acceptance. But I ask, would a "cold" union produce such a sudden, passionate revolt?
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Michael Sicinski is a film writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and GreenCine Daily.More articles by Michael Sicinski