Category: Russian cinema

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.


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!