The Return marked the first appearance of director Andrey Zvyagintsev on the international scene when it won several awards at Venice, including the Golden Lion. It is rare that a first feature (following television dramas) is so accomplished and Zvyagintsev seemed to appear fully-formed as an international arthouse director – something confirmed by the three further features during the next ten years. It’s significant that this was no young tyro but a former actor who began to work in television in his late 30s. Not trained in film school he claims to have learned his craft by watching the great auteur directors – Antonioni, Bergman, Bresson, Tarkovsky etc. His age is significant in that he grew up as a teenager and young adult during the last decades of the Soviet Union so he has lived through the transition to ‘modern’ Russia. Growing up in Novisibirsk in South-West Siberia, the major city of Russian Central Asia before moving to Moscow he would certainly have been conscious of landscape and climate – two of the distinctive features of The Return.
The film’s production was funded by REN-TV, the independent commercial channel that first offered Zvyagintsev directing work and the script was initially intended as a thriller. Zvyagintsev decided to jettison many of the plot elements producing instead an enigmatic arthouse narrative. Ironically, the film’s festival successes made the director into a star in Russia where there is still a great deal of prestige attached to ‘film as art’, certainly more than to commercial cinema. His win at Venice placed Zvyagintsev alongside Tarkovsky, the last Russian to win a Golden Lion in 1962. In broad outline the plot offers the ‘return’ of the father after an absence of 12 years to his family in a small coastal town. This comes as a shock to his two sons. The youngest, Ivan, was only an infant when his father left and his brother Andrey was only a couple of years older. The two boys have different personalities and this becomes important in their reactions to their father’s appearance and his subsequent actions. These include the adventure holiday he decides to take them on while leaving behind the boys’ mother and grandmother.
The boys have no idea where they are going and it isn’t long before they realise that they are being ‘tested’ in some way – subject to a ‘learning by doing’ approach to father-son bonding. While Andrey tries to adjust to this, Ivan is reluctant to the point of rebellion. No explanation is given as to where the father has been for 12 years. Has he been in prison? More likely he has been in the army – his treatment of the boys seems like a military training approach. I won’t spoil the narrative, but the plot elements from the thriller that do remain (phone calls to an unknown person, what has been described as a Hitchcockian ‘Macguffin’ – a mysterious object) do ratchet up the tension. We know something is going to happen. All of this is a big gamble for the director. He is reliant on three sets of creative elements – the three central performances, the environment (landscape and weather) and cinematography/sound/music. It is because each of these three is so well handled and excellently co-ordinated that the open-ended narrative works. The budget was only $500,000 so there would be little possibility of re-shoots and CGI to correct mistakes.
The final section of the film was shot on and around Lake Ladoga (the largest lake in Europe) in the Leningrad Oblast. The lake is so large that it feels and looks like an inland sea. Although it isn’t that far from the main centres of ‘European Russia’ it can still feel like a remote location. It’s difficult to articulate the power of landscape in Russian cinema but it is central to the work of many of the great Russian directors. Characters have a long way to travel, many parts of the vast country are under-populated, the ‘continental’ climate offers extremes of weather. The enormous skies and clear vistas offer a contrast to the ‘urban’ and bring audiences closer to the mythological and religious experience – our time in the cinema becomes an experience akin to 40 days and nights in the desert.
Since audiences are denied that obsession of commercial cinema that produces ‘closure’ – or at least a defined question or puzzle – in The Return, readings tend to turn to religion, mythology and allegory/metaphor. Several commentators refer to the father’s behaviour as ‘abuse’. I’m not sure that is helpful. There is no evidence that he wishes to harm his sons. On the contrary he wants to build relationships but his approach is wrong for the context. In Russian terms this might be a commentary on masculinity, on the failure of the rigid military/ideological discipline of the Soviet Union – or it may be a commentary on biblical themes whose potency is re-emerging in modern Russia. I don’t as yet have a strong view on any of these possibilities. The imagery (courtesy of DoP Mikhail Krichman, responsible for camerawork on each of Zvyagintsev’s four features) is so powerful (especially in conjunction with Andrey Dergachev’s music) that at this stage I simply want to enjoy being enveloped by it. Only The Banishment to go now and then I’ll reassess across the four films. The Return is a stunning début film.
Here’s the trailer:
After Leviathan I’m working backwards to look at the earlier work of writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Elena was his third feature film and it too won a major Cannes prize. I remember Elena‘s UK release and the good reviews and I don’t remember why I didn’t see it at the time. I suspect that seeing it after Leviathan I have read it quite differently than I might have done if I’d seen it ‘cold’. Reading the reviews now and the director’s statement in the Press Pack I can see just what a complex film this is – and the ways in which some analyses of the film seem way off beam. There is also an interview with the director on the UK DVD which complicates things even more.
On the surface this is a straightforward narrative involving the couple in the still above. Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin don’t explain everything about the relationship immediately so I’ll try not to spoil the narrative too much. It appears that Vladimir is the strong patriarchal figure, a wealthy man accustomed to having his needs catered to and Elena is more like a servant or housekeeper. We see her efficiently dealing with the morning chores in the elegant upper middle-class apartment and then setting out across the city by train to the outer suburbs where she visits what we surmise to be her son’s family living in a high-rise block similar to those across much of Northern Europe. The principal narrative enigma emerges as the question of what will happen to Elena’s teenage grandson Sasha. Where will the money come from to ensure his future and prevent him being drafted into the Russian Army? Will Vladimir help? We then later realise that Vladimir’s only heir is his wayward daughter Katerina and that the narrative will explore the differences between the two families.
I found the director’s statement about what he was trying to do nearly as odd as some of the reviews with their confident assertions about what kind of film this is. It might be useful to point out some of the stylistic features of the film and then to discuss the symbolism of certain scenes. The film is both ‘realist’ – ‘hyper-realist’ perhaps – and a form of expressionist melodrama with symbolic meanings associated with several scenes. Various commentators have made references to other filmmakers and other cultures. At one point I thought of the Japanese stories of Tanizaki Junichiro and much later it occurred to me that the film style is similar to the work of Christian Petzold. I’m thinking here of Petzold’s Yella (Germany 2007) with its depiction of the new soulless capitalist world. I offer these references partly to point towards the ways in which other writers and directors have attempted to deal with personal stories in the context of big changes in society – changes which involve the dominating influence of a new system (i.e. Japanese v. Western ideologies, state communism v. global capitalism).
To take just two examples of Zvyagintsev’s approach. Firstly the cinematography, production design and music (by Philip Glass) combine to create exquisite compositions and moods in Vladimir’s apartment. Some of this is clearly studio artifice and on the DVD ‘extra’ the director explains how the opening shots of crows on the branches of the trees outside Vladimir’s apartment at sunrise were shot in a studio setting with artificial lights. There are some moments of pure expressionism when Elena sits before a pair of mirrors offering careful reflections of her image and another which offers a Michael Snow moment – a slow track/zoom à la Wavelength, but rather shorter, in to a framed photograph of Elena several years younger. The theatre actor Nadezhda Markina in her first film role is excellent. Elena is a woman who has thickened in her figure as she has aged but it is still possible to see the beautiful woman she was. Her hair is luxuriant and the camera lingers on the occasions when she puts it up and takes it down. Vladimir does the modern things like drive his Audi to the gym while Elena takes public transport dressed much like the babushkas of old.
I can’t really explain the other aspect of Zvyagintsev’s approach in any detail without spoiling the narrative. In general terms, however, it is clear that he is prepared to include both scenes that are slow-paced and seem to have little relevance and other sequences which are frantic in terms of action. The latter have clear links to a commentary on the state of Russian society and one includes all the power going off in the high-rise where Elena’s son lives – the mass of the people are in the dark when the decisions of the élite are taken. The director discusses why he decided to keep this particular sequence in the finished film. He also discusses another scene which seems deliberately inserted when Elena visits a church – and Zvyagintsev talks about how the scene was prompted by a passage in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Wikipedia describes the 1880 novel as “. . . a spiritual drama of moral struggles concerning faith, doubt, and reason, set against a modernising Russia”. Zvyagintsev’s film is certainly concerned on one level with a moral struggle set against modernising Russia and in this respect – as well as the shifts between stasis and set pieces – it resembles Leviathan. Peter Bradshaw writes that the film reminds him of Chabrol and in particular Merci pour le chocolat (France-Switzerland 2000). There are links it’s true but I don’t think the tone is Chabrol. The director himself describes Elena as a ‘monster’, which seems way over the top. The Cannes synopsis describes the film as a noir thriller and the Philip Glass music as Hitchcockian. I don’t think it is particularly noir or a thriller. In some ways it feels Ballardian, especially in the way it opens and closes with the beautiful apartment and its ‘cool’ design. An article in the Guardian, discussing the negative reactions to Leviathan in Russia after its Golden Globes win, included this comment ” . . . his previous three feature films were deeply allegorical, playing out against backdrops that seemed removed from real geographical or temporal locations” (and therefore Leviathan was more identifiably ‘Russian’). It’s true that the city isn’t named in Elena, but it certainly seemed like a ‘real geographical or temporal location’ to me. Zvyagintsev’s films seem to create very different readings amongst audiences – and that’s one of the reasons that they are so intriguing. The Return is next for me, I think.
Here’s the Official UK trailer for Elena. It indicates the direction of the plot more than I have done above, so be warned!
Leviathan is certainly a beautifully-made film with excellent performances, great cinematography and a richly-layered narrative. But I’m not sure whether I’ve completely grasped it on a first viewing. Perhaps I was over-tired but I did sense the narrative intensity slow around the mid-point. I also noted some missing connections – again perhaps I simply didn’t see them. I suspect that my fears will prove groundless after a second or third viewing.
There has already been a great deal written about a film which is currently vying with Pawlikowski’s Ida (review coming here soon) for top European film of the year. I’ll try not to cover the same ground but I need first to introduce the background to the story. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin got the story idea from an American news report about a man in the Mid-West. The set-up is both universal and very Russian. The film’s title refers to both the sea monster of the Book of Job and Hobbes’ book on the philosophy of the ‘contract’ between the state and the individual. The only thing I can remember about Hobbes is his description of life as “nasty, brutish and short”. I think I saw recently that Russia is one of the few places where life expectancy for men was for a period falling – largely because of excessive vodka drinking. The man at the centre of Leviathan is Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov). He has built a house and a workshop on a headland overlooking a bay on the coast in the Murmansk Oblast (that’s northern Russia’s Arctic coast – or the Barents Sea). Now it appears that the corrupt local mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov) has successfully conspired to seize the house and its land. The legal process is nearing completion. Kolia’s last resort is to send for Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov), his former ‘junior’ officer in the Russian Army and now a slick Moscow lawyer. Dmitri’s arrival has unexpected consequences for Kolia and his little family – his young teenage son Roma and his second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova).
The three things that struck me most about the film were the sense of place, mainly achieved through the ‘Scope cinematography, the attention given to the church and the eroticism of Lilya as the woman caught in the middle of what is essentially a male narrative. I haven’t seen the director’s earlier films but I do have a DVD of The Return which I’m now determined to watch. Even so the Russian landscape (and local culture) seemed familiar partly because I’d seen the short documentaries shot in the Murmansk region that were shown at the Bradford Film Festival earlier this year and partly because similar landscapes are found in Northern Norway. I presume that Leviathan is set in summer since there are only small pockets of snow – but it still means that the land has a hard and cold beauty rather than the lushness of summer further south.
Hobbes always struck me as offering the bleakest possible view of humanity and forms of governance – in which survival is only possible because the majority agree to surrender all power to a single strong ruler in order to avoid civil war. Russia seems to be a society that has never escaped from the grip of this kind of pessimistic view of the world – apart from brief periods. Hobbes also included the strong connection between the church and the absolute ruler. One of the features of Leviathan the film, is the role played by the Orthodox church leader (a bishop?). This character makes two important appearances in the narrative and seems only interested in consolidating his own power. But director Zvyagintsev also offers us a priest whose activities include feeding the poor.
The film’s narrative offers us a man who fights for his family and his home. He is irascible and prone to lose his temper but he is passionate about his beliefs. He’s up against a system that is presented as absurd in its adherence to procedures when decisions have already been taken by corrupted officials. This is neatly visualised in a pair of scenes. In the first, one of three women on the bench of the local court reads through a judgement at breakneck speed confirming that Kolia’s appeals are worthless and in another in the Mayor’s office, under a portrait of Putin, local officials are berated by the Mayor and reminded of what they need to do to protect their corrupt local power base. Much has been made of the fact that the film is supported by state funding/recognition but that it appears to be condemnatory. This is a good example of how films can be read differently by different people in different circumstances. Zvyagintsev has made various statements about the film’s themes and these have been interpreted in almost completely opposed ways. There is far too much going on in the film to make any kind of glib interpretation. It is important to note that the key moment in the narrative is perhaps the ‘shooting party’, a birthday celebration and another excuse for serious drinking. This includes some interesting ‘commentary’ (‘jokes’) on Russian gun culture, the legacy of military service and attitudes towards Russia’s leaders of past and present. It also provokes the incident which triggers the excess of the family melodrama. This returns us to the roles of women in the film. I almost feel like I need to see the film again before I can say anything about the female roles and it does seem to me that everything I’ve read about the film has come from men.
I wonder if I’m trying to read the women in the film as pragmatic – concerned with family, work, love, sex etc. rather than power? Do the women who agree to support the mayor do so because it makes life more tolerable and allows them to do the more important things? If you start to feel that getting on with life instead of resisting corrupt power is the only way, what does that mean? At this point I realise that most of the UK population don’t go out of their way to resist the corrupt power of the financial-political élite who rule in the UK. Somebody suggested to me recently that Leviathan was the most depressing film that they’d seen for a long time. I have to disagree. It made me think and when I think, I’m still alive. I’m not depressed. I would recommend Leviathan to anyone who feels the same way.
Bradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.
I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.
Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.