Category: Russian cinema

King Lear (Korol Lir, USSR (Russian) 1971)

Juri Jarvet as Lear sitting by the fire in his court.

(This post is written by Shabanah Fazal and posted by Roy Stafford)

King Lear is Shakespeare’s tale of an ageing monarch who makes a spectacular error of judgement by dividing his kingdom through a ‘love trial’ of his three daughters, unleashing chaos in the land. There are countless film versions, some of the best known like King of Texas (US TV film, 2002), A Thousand Acres (Iowa, US 1997), Ran (Japan 1985), transplanting the story to radically different soil.  Peter Brook’s monochrome film (1971) is considered by many the definitive screen version of Shakespeare’s original. In his absurdist vision, the key word ‘Nothing’ reverberates throughout – from the black silence of the opening titles to the apocalyptic waste of the ending. Most British stage and screen productions have followed in this tradition of nihilistic despair, recent ones taking the theme of breakdown further by retreating to the small, dark, senseless space of an old man’s dementia-ridden head.

It was refreshing therefore recently to discover Grigori Kozintsev’s gloriously expansive Russian language film Korol Lir. Released the same year as Brook’s film and superficially similar in its monochrome vision of tragic destruction, it deserves to be far better known: Kozintsev offers a more coherent, richer and arguably uplifting reading of Shakespeare. The film is available on DVD but only a cinema re-release could truly do justice to this wide-screen epic. A contemporary of Eisenstein, Kozintsev was an experimental film-maker who learned his craft in the great age of montage, with the creative theatre and film school FEKS; in his later career, he developed into a visually imaginative but more mature artist with a (socialist?) realist style. He was also a Shakespeare scholar with a deep interest in his tragic ‘philosophy’, so it is no surprise that in the 1940s he staged and later filmed his two darkest tragedies Gamlet (1964) and Korol Lir (1971). Kozintsev declared he wanted ‘to create a visual poetry with the same quality as that of Shakespearian verse’ (dialogue with Ronald Hayman, 1973) – so dramatically cut Shakespeare’s lines (the film runs to only 2 hours 11 minutes). Achieving his goal was made easier because of his long and close collaboration with translator Boris Pasternak and composer Dmitri Shostakovich on productions of Shakespeare. Shot on the shores of the Baltic, both films are remarkable for their powerfully symbolic elemental imagery, luminous clarity of vision and epic – often monumental – shot-making. There is no finer example than the breathtaking scene in which the ghost of Hamlet’s father first appears on the castle battlements.

Much of the rich ambiguity of Kozintsev’s Shakespeare films derives from the Soviet context: they share the quality of ‘double-voicing’ (Bakhtin) that characterises much of the art produced in a repressive state. That is to say, they can be read as innocent ‘art’ or allegorically, as political critique of the Soviet system. In turn, audiences were primed to look for encoded meanings – each one potentially a small act of resistance. To the distant pre-Christian English setting of King Lear, Kozintsev added another layer of strangeness, using some foreign actors dubbed into Russian – for example, lead actor Estonian Juri Jarvet. As a truth-hating tyrant whose actions ruin his country (symbolised by his tearing up of an enormous map of the nation), Lear stands for oppressive Soviet leadership, from Stalin to Brezhnev. However, Kozintsev suggests he is doomed from the start: unlike the great bearded patriarch of the silent era Lear (1909) or Patrick Stewart’s heroically masculine ‘King of Texas’, gaunt-faced Juri Jarvet cuts a frail figure. For all the actor’s passionate performance, this Lear is dwarfed by his throne, his outsize royal garments and ridiculously sculpted hair collapsing around him as he hurtles towards his downfall. In presenting the all-powerful leader as almost comically impotent from the start, Kozintsev creates pity for Lear and but also stirs the political hopes of his audience.

Grigori Kozintsev

Like many Russian artists who saw Shakespeare as a radical and their contemporary, Kozintsev understood instinctively the deeply political nature of a tragic vision that links the fate of the individual to the nation. From the opening frames to the great final battle, this feels like a biblical epic. In his re-imagining of the play, Kozintsev presents  the poor multitudes on the move, devotedly following Lear on his journey all the way to Dover – crowds that perhaps represent the peasantry or proletariat, the dispossessed and alienated living in internal exile. Lear has to be reduced to their level, to a state of Nature, to ‘ . . . a bare, forked animal’ before the process of regeneration can begin.  At this climactic point of the narrative, Kozintsev makes Nature his central character. In a series of intensely atmospheric scenes Ionas Gritsius’ savagely beautiful cinematography captures the disorder both in Lear’s mind and kingdom. In the critical storm scene, there is an epic sweep to his camera work, which takes us to vast windswept wastelands where high overhead shots pick out a tiny figure illuminated in the darkness – Lear raging pitifully against the elements.  Such shots are reminiscent of Orson Welles’ Macbeth and Othello, but Welles’ use of chiaroscuro is more noirish. In this scene wild grunting boars, horses, and bears charge restlessly through desert spaces, amid an enhanced soundscape of violently rustling trees and howling winds. The film abounds in such primitive imagery and Kozintsev does not flinch from the darkest side of human nature. After the unimaginable cruelty of Gloucester’s eyes being gouged out, he reflects Lear’s verdict that he has spawned sexually rapacious ‘tigers, not daughters’ by cutting to invented  scenes of Goneril and Edmund having sex, followed by the necrophiliac horror of Regan not so much kissing as devouring the face of her dead husband Cornwall.

Despite its darkness, there are other striking features that make this a politically engaged film. Firstly, Kozintsev gives the Fool (Oleg Dahl) a much greater role than usual, exploiting his ambiguous status as state servant but licenced truth-teller to represent him partly as the artist, and partly as the ‘holy fool’ of Russian tradition. He introduces him to the play earlier than does Shakespeare, showing Lear from the start sheltering him under his cloak and patting him on the head, like a surrogate child, a reminder of the loving daughter Cordelia he has unjustly banished. Crouching in dark corners, the Fool is a loyal dog growling out his riddling wisdom to Lear. From the opening titles, Shostakovich uses the motif of jaunty pipe music to signal the Fool’s artistic purity and role as the voice of Shakespeare’s conscience. Even though the playwright has him fade away well before then, Kozintsev keeps him till the final frames, when he is kicked aside like a cur but rises defiantly to play Russian folk tunes that hint of hope to the audience.

Cordelia’s marriage to the King of France with the overt Christian symbolism

Secondly, Kozintsev makes overt use of Christian references in a pagan world that can be taken for the atheist state. Shostakovich begins with highly emotive religious chants, reflecting the growing role of the Russian Orthodox Church as a force of resistance in the later Communist era. His orchestral score then builds to a thundering discordant climax as Lear ascends prophet-like to the top of his castle to address his kneeling subjects, only to spew ugly fire against his daughters. To emphasise that Lear is the false god of the old order, Kozintsev cuts straight to a new order in which the forces of good are aligned with Christian imagery of resurrection: Cordelia’s marriage to France (off-stage in Shakespeare’s play) takes place before a great wooden cross. He underscores this idea through the use of a fabric motif; first seen in the background to the opening and closing titles is a threadbare coarse-weave fabric that symbolises both the ruination of Lear’s land and its salvation. This becomes clear when Gloucester’s innocent banished son Edgar (disguised as Poor Tom the beggar) uses such a fabric to cover his nakedness, but later gives up even this meagre rag to bind his broken staff into a cross marking his father’s grave. Fire that is first foregrounded burning in Lear’s hearth eventually becomes a raging holocaust, evoking perhaps the destruction of two world wars, Hiroshima and Vietnam. But the effect is cathartic and perhaps revolutionary: the whole social order must be razed to the ground for a better one to arise.  After the deaths of Lear and Cordelia, the camera takes us out wide to birds flying over the sea, signifying not death but liberation. Ending on images of sacrifice and redemption might in a western context seem almost reactionary, but here can be read as resistance.

Faced with the everyday threat of personal and nuclear annihilation, for the artists of Brezhnev’s Cold War USSR despair might have seemed a western luxury; on the other hand, engagement was an act of survival. Some might dismiss the film as rather traditional, but for me it is precisely Kozintsev’s commitment to a search for meaning that makes his version of King Lear particularly appealing in our jaded postmodern age. His achievement was to marry poetry and politics using the moving image – the ultimate light illusion – to conjure something from Shakespeare’s ‘Nothing’.

The film is officially available from Lenfilm (with English subs) in HD (but a slightly-squeezed aspect ratio on YouTube:

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The Postman’s White Nights (Belye nochi pochtalona Akekseya Tryapitsyna, Russia 2014)

Postman1web

A feature by Andrei Konchalovsky is in the Official Selection at the Leeds International Film Festival. Konchalovsky is a writer and director who has also acted in films. His credits include work for television and number of documentaries; scripting for Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (Andrey Rublyov, 1966) and acting in Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo detstvo, 1962). This is a rather different film from those of Tarkovsky, but visually there are parallels.

The film is set round a Kenozero Lake, in the near arctic lands in the north of Russia. The setting is summer, so there is sunshine, warmth and much greenery. The lake is rich in fish and plant life: and one aspect of the plot is fishery regulation about what is or is not allowed. Lyoka (Akekseya Tryapitsyna) is the postman and he provides a link between a small lakeside community, the local hamlet and a nearby town. His routines are mundane but sometimes disrupted by slightly more dramatic events. There is also a visit at one point to an early space rocket station: which also provides a wry detail late in the film.

The cast are almost all local non-professional people. The one exception appears to be an unobtainable romantic interest, Irina (Irina Ermolova). The contributes greatly to the sense of naturalism that pervades the film and is one of it pleasures. There is a real sense of an authentic setting and community of sorts.

The director and co-scriptwriter is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“In the last years I’ve started thinking that modern cinema is trying to spare the audience from having to engage in contemplation. Over the last few years I’ve been plagued by the uncertainty of whether I truly understand the essence of cinema. This film is my attempt at discovering  new possibilities offered by moving images accompanied by sound. An attempt to see the world surrounding us through the eyes of a ‘newborn’. An attempt to unhurriedly study life.”

There are certainly times in the film  of unhurried contemplation. And the sound, and the music from Verdi’s Requiem, emphasises this. But there is also more to film, including quirky sequences such as a series of scenes where Lyoka wakes to find a beautifully groomed grey cat contemplating him. And there is a quiet but unsettling passage as Lyoka takes Irina’s son out on a boat trip. But there is also a sense of the protagonist exploring his situation and memories. The film opens as Lyoka contemplates a whole series of photographs of people, some of whom we will recognise in the course of the film.

The production, including the cinematography, serves the project well. This is a slow but delightful film. It is in colour and standard widescreen with English subtitles. At present the Leeds Festival screening is the only listed one for the UK, but hopefully it will get some sort of release here.

The Banishment (Izgnanie, Russia 2007)

Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) with Vera (Maria Bonnevie)  'caught' in the mirror's reflection.

Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko) with Vera (Maria Bonnevie) ‘caught’ in the mirror’s reflection.

The second film by Andrey Zvyagintsev in 2007, five years after the completion of The Return, certainly confirmed the emergence of a major filmmaker and, in its Biblical allusions (and running time), in some ways looked forward to Leviathan seven years later. Like Leviathan, its inspiration was an American story, but in this case a fictional story by William Saroyan. I don’t know how much of that story made its way into The Banishment, but it is striking that there is a balance between relatively short, sharp sequences that might be generic in their references to familiar crime/thriller/melodrama narratives and much longer introspective pieces in which landscapes and interiors come into prominence.

The story involves a couple with two small children, a boy and a girl. Alex is played by Konstantin Lavronenko (the father in The Return) and Vera by the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie. We first see Alex in ‘the city’ tending to his brother who has been shot. The family then take the train to the isolated country house that belonged to Alex’s parents. During their time in the country it becomes clear that the marriage is under great strain. The crisis point is reached when Vera announces that she is pregnant. Alex’s reaction to her announcement becomes the trigger that ‘fires’ the rest of the narrative.

SUMMERHOURS_QUAD

As in all great cinema, the power of this film resides in the meticulous creation and manipulation of narrative time and space. Zvyagintsev spent three years trying to get exactly what he wanted in terms of locations and dressed sets. According to the interview on the DVD he found landscapes in Moldova and the city locations in Charleroi in Belgium. The sets erected in Moldova were dressed with materials from German flea markets. The intended result was to suggest an environment that is not specifically ‘Russian’ and this it certainly does. When I first saw the film I thought of Ukraine for the landscapes and the industrial centre of Sheffield for the city, so I wasn’t a million miles away. The rural location also evokes American landscapes and even specific Hollywood films. There is a cemetery on a hill-top above a church and the family home with its verandah looks out over the valley. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think your way into a Ford film or perhaps Malick’s Days of Heaven. In the DVD interview Zvyagintsev refers to the ‘American painter Andrew White’. What he then describes can only, as far as I can work out, refer to Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) which I last discussed in relation to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The house in this painting became in the director’s words “. . . colour and texture-wise our reference point in our designs for the film”.

Wyeth's 'Christina's World'

Wyeth’s ‘Christina’s World’

The original Saroyan story was published in 1953 and set in California. Having created a non-specific location, Zvyagintsev also set out to create a world ‘out of time’, so though clearly updated from the 1950s, there are no indicators as to when the story is taking place. Given the thin plot for a film lasting 157 minutes, much of the narrative of the film is carried by the richness of the images, both in terms of narrative space to be explored by the viewer and also the possibilities of symbolic meanings or intertextual references embedded in the mise en scène. It is perhaps this aspect of the film which has so split critics and audiences.

The great success of The Return in 2002 built up an enormous expectation for The Banishment which was screened in competition at Cannes. The film did win the Best Actor prize for Konstantin Lavronenko but in retrospect this seems a strange award. Not that it is a bad performance, but that it doesn’t seem like the most striking aspect of the film. A good example of the critical reaction to the film when it was released in the UK can be found in Neil Young’s review from 2008:

There’s a definite sense that, in straining so hard for auteur-style greatness, Zvyagintsev has ended up merely aping the cinematic giants who have come before him – emphasising his own shortcomings in the process. But there are sufficient compensations and distractions here to suggest that he is a genuine talent – albeit one who needs a firmer editorial hand if he’s to fully maximise his considerable potential.

Young’s review is fair and the ‘cinematic giant’ he refers to is Tarkovsky. He argues that a new Russian auteur inevitably gets called the new Tarkovsky and that Zvyagintsev is in this film making the Tarkovsky gestures but not yet achieving the results. What The Banishment does for me is to send me back to Tarkovsky, a filmmaker I only know from his earlier films, determined to find out more. In the process it occurs to me that though Young’s review is quite even-handed it misses two points. First, I think it requires several viewings and some very close textual analysis to determine how Zvyagintsev’s use of interiors and landscapes matches up to Tarkovsky. Second, the critical context, the social institution of cinema – the festival structure, the veneration of certain types of cinephilia, the scholarship, the availability of DVDs etc. – has changed enormously between the appearance of Tarkovsky’s Venice-winner Ivan’s Childhood in 1962 and Zvyagintsev’s The Return in 2002. And, of course, Russian cinema is very different from how it was in the Khrushchev years of the early 1960s.

When Zvyagintsev speaks about his work he seems aggressive but possibly this also masks a defensiveness. He isn’t a trained filmmaker (instead a trained actor) and he had little experience before directing his features. He sees himself as ‘self-trained’ through exposure to those ‘cinematic giants’ whose work he watched in Moscow when acting jobs were scarce. Like many directors interviewed for festivals and DVD releases he quotes many different directors but often comes back to Bresson, Antonioni etc. Those are two directors I don’t know well so I’m probably seeing different references. I’ve recently watched Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) and there seem to be several ‘borrowings’ and ‘celebrations’ of Tarkovsky’s image-making. For instance a key scene between husband and wife is played out amongst trees in a scene which uses a similar setting and camera techniques seen in the opening of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. We could find other Tarkovskian moments (and the casting of Maria Bonnevie as the wife seems to evoke Tarkovsky as well). Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Zvyagintsev, his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and designer Andrey Ponkratov, seem in complete control of what they are doing and with the music of Andrey Dergachev and Arvo Pärt they create a melodrama of great power. I think I’ll watch it again.

This clip shows what I take to be a dream sequence heavily influenced by Tarkovsky and, according to a colleague, Antonioni. Either way it is a terrific piece of filmmaking:

Second Thoughts on Elena (Russia 2011)

elena train

Petzold's Yella and Zvyangintsev's Elena - women on the move in New Europe.

Petzold’s Yella (above) and Zvyangintsev’s Elena (top) – women on the move in the New Europe.

[This is a second posting on Elena, the third film by Andrey Zvyagintsev. The original posting is here. The film was screened on a day school focusing on Zvyagintsev’s films and his potential status as a ‘film artist’.]

The screening at Kala Sangam in Bradford brought out several interesting film comparisons. A brief warning – there are no direct SPOILERs here, but there is a discussion of scenes and the tone of the ending.  I completely agree with the reference to Christian Petzold in the original post on this film. I thought of his Ghost Trilogy several times and wondered whether the shared austerity of these two filmmakers reflects a desire to strip away ‘noise’ in the mise en scène so that they can ‘forensically’ examine what modern economics in the New Europe has done to its people. Interestingly, Petzold utilised landscapes in a similar way, for example in Yella, to create a commentary on economic power and class, both films seeming to represent the soullessness of the no-man’s-lands each female protagonist has to cross or inhabit.  Petzold’s film also alludes to a particularly German history of economic divide between East and West in his country which reinforces the need of his protagonist to move. (And movement also is a key feature of Ulrich Seidl’s economic migrants through the film frame in Import/Export (2007)). This moral emptiness is not confined to the poorer landscapes – Yella‘s boardrooms and Elena’s home with Vladimir both reverberate with the emotional coldness of minimalist chic. (A trope present in Christoph Hochhäusler’s Under dir die Stadt (2010)).

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman's Jeanne and Zvyagintsev's Elena.

Inscrutable faces of domestic labour? Akerman’s Jeanne and Zvyagintsev’s Elena.

There were also resonances for me of Chantal Akerman’s masterpiece, Jeanne Dielman 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). Both Zvyagintsev’s film and her’s present the rhythm of domestic routines undertaken by these women although different choices in mise en scène highlight each directors’ different aims. However, there are parallels in the representation of sexual relationships as comprising fundamentally economic transactions, more literally of course in Jeanne’s case. Elena, like Jeanne, is a gnomic figure. Never do we go behind her inexpressive face to be given a direct insight into her emotions and thoughts. This invests the narrative with greater power and realism – who knows exactly why they do things so why should our faces always show it? – and her pivotal action seems both spontaneous and a response to deeply-held feelings about her partnership with Vladimir. Elena seems to have held a particular understanding of the ‘deal’ that had been struck over the past ten years she has stayed with him on which he has lately appeared to renege. This is reinforced for me as Zvyagintsev seems to allude to this theme of transactions again through a short sequence foregrounding an office secretary during a visit made by some of the main characters. Whilst she is young, slim, blonde and conventionally beautiful – dressed in a professional outfit that accentuates her figure – her movement in making and bringing in teas and coffees is an exact echo of Elena’s daily movements around the flat earlier. Significantly, she closes the door on leaving the office – mimicking Elena’s exits from her husband’s bedroom. Her action – as part of her job as secretary – is domestic labour as part of economic work. It elegantly and lightly alludes to Elena’s work in her marriage. How much she is ‘owed’ for that work remains part of the moral debate handled in an fruitfully ambiguous way by the writer-director.

all that heaven tv

Jane Wyman, the young widow, framed in the reflection of the TV screen in ‘All That Heaven Allows’ by Douglas Sirk

Allusion and symbol is a poetic technique and the use of visual symbols featured in today’s discussion about Zvyagintsev’s status as a film artist within Russian cinema. We might want to recall a more overtly expressionistic use of mirrors in Douglas Sirk’s posing of Cary (Jane Wyman) in front of her mirror in All that Heaven Allows (1955) as her romance with Rock Hudson’s Ron blossoms and then founders. Even more expressive is the construction of her reflection in the ghastly TV set her children buy for her to replace her young lover with a more appropriate ‘companion.’ Aspects of Elena’s love for her feckless and generally ungrateful son might recall aspects of these classic, Hollywood melodramatic plots. (An interesting analysis of mise en scène in Sirk and Fassbinder here).

Sirk was considered to be a master of ‘aporia’ – of creating a mood that was emotionally unresolved at the end of his films despite their conventional endings. Elena certainly strikes several notes of ambiguity – in our feelings towards all of the characters in what is both a narrative about very Russian concerns of class, power and money but one which still feels immediately empathic for a Western international audience. This narrative is filtered through the perspective of the female protagonist – quiet, unassuming (like Jeanne) her inner world is not opened up to us as it would be through Sirk’s expressionistic style. However, Elena exerts the greatest power in the narrative, driving it forward as the men stay inactive or relatively powerless. Still, we may be left wondering what her personal actions really mean for wider society and class mobility in modern Russia; the film’s ambiguity (or aporia) adding impact to its social commentary through (rather than despite) its irresolution. In other words, whilst the family story may be (temporarily) settled, the future for all feels rather uncertain.

The Return (Vozvrashchenie, Russia 2003)

The family together on the day of the father's return.

The family together on the day of the father’s return.

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.

Arrival on the island: a sunny scene but the composition emphasises Ivan's distance from his father (as the younger son looking out across the lake)

Arrival on the island: a sunny scene but the composition emphasises Ivan’s distance from his father (as the younger son looking out across the lake)

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.

Ivan's plea to go fishing results in being abandoned for a few hours – and caught in the torrential rain.

Ivan’s plea to go fishing results in being abandoned for a few hours – and caught in the torrential rain.

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:

Elena (Russia 2011)

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) (photo from Zeitgeist Films)

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) (photo from Zeitgeist Films)

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).

Elena before her mirror – a classic Expressionist composition suggesting potential conflicts between her identities.

Elena before her mirror – a classic Expressionist composition suggesting potential conflicts between her identities.

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.

The zoom/track in to the photo.

The zoom/track in to the photo.

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 (Russia 2014)

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

The Leviathan trapped in the bay . . .

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).

Kolia's house

Kolia’s house

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.

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov) and Lilya (Elena Lyadova)

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.

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford 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.