Loveless is the fifth feature directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. For some critics, he has become the successor to Andrei Tarkovsky. Every film has won a major prize. With Leviathan (2014) he fell foul of the Russian government and this latest film comes as a co-production in which Zvyagintsev has attracted support from French-German cultural TV channel arte and fellow filmmakers the Dardennes Brothers among others. Cannes prizewinners stick together. In the UK, the film is released by the small independent Altitude rather than one of the larger arthouse brands like Curzon Artificial Eye. I hope this doesn’t restrict audience access – it doesn’t seem to have done so far.
I’ve been surprised by some of the reviews for the film in the UK and there has been a lot of discussion about how harrowing the film is etc. I’m somebody who weeps easily in any sentimental film and copiously for a finely wrought melodrama. I sat through Loveless unmoved, but always closely engaged. This isn’t callousness on my part but rather a function of the film’s address to audiences (it may also be because I’m not a parent). The film doesn’t aim to manipulate emotions but to observe a situation. The style is ‘hyper realist’ with a camera eye that is cold and unblinking, observing, often head-on, a marriage disintegrating. The camera is often still and the digital image is pristine but desaturated, emphasising the bleakness of the coming Russian winter in the opening and closing shots of the film. I think it is a kind of anti-melodrama and I enjoy the visual splendour of a film which some critics seem to feel is too heavy-handed. I’m sure there are things I missed or haven’t thought through, but I’m confident that there is intelligence behind every move Zvyagintsev makes.
The story is carefully set in 2012 (referenced via news reports and later on posters). As someone in another review has pointed out, the figure at the centre of the narrative (even if he appears only fleetingly), is 12 year-old Alyosha who was born in 2000, the first official year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The appraisal of society that the film offers could be argued to be a statement about ‘Putin’s Russia’. Alyosha is unlucky to be the son of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), parents who are in the process of divorcing, having both found new partners. There doesn’t seem to be a place for Alyosha in either new relationship, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he disappears one day. The narrative then becomes about the search for Alyosha and what this does (or doesn’t do) to Zhenya and Boris. In various interviews Zvyagintsev has said that the idea for the film came when he visited America in 2015 and that Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973/4) was a filmic starting point. This implies a kind of universalist approach. The tragedy could actually happen anywhere. But Zvyagintsev is an artist who believes that universal stories have to be rooted in a specific place and he’s chosen different Russian settings for his films. In this sense Loveless is most like Elena (2011) in focusing on social class difference in suburban Moscow. Not many critics have noticed that Aleksey Rozin as Boris, also appeared as Elena’s son Sergey in the 2011 film. There are several other parallels between the two films, e.g. the potential pathway which leads boys from school into the armed forces.
The family in Loveless, though upwardly mobile, lives in a flat/apartment in a high-rise block in suburban Moscow. Boris has a desk-job in a company owned by a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, who Zhenya refers to as operating a form of ‘Sharia Orthodox Law’. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Boris’s new partner Masha is already heavily pregnant, so he won’t lose face in his company if he divorces and remarries before anyone notices. Zhenya has some kind of interest in a beauty salon – but she has also snared a wealthy older businessman with a grown-up daughter. Both parents have their materialist concerns sorted out, but they don’t have much idea about parenting. I wondered about ‘spoilers’ at this point, but this film is not heavy on plot. It turns into a kind of police procedural when Alyosha goes missing and I need to analyse some moments to make any meaningful comments.
The look of the film
Zvyagintsev has worked with the same key ‘creatives’ on several films. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has photographed three out of four (but not Elena). Production designer/art director Andrey Ponkratov has also been on three out of four shoots (including Elena). I mention Elena for two aesthetic reasons. One is the use of opening and closing sequences without actions but heavy with a sense of something – and I’m not sure exactly what it is. We know from interviews that in Elena, the shots (outside an apartment) were shot in a studio. Loveless was supposedly all shot on location, but the complex compositions inside apartment buildings feel like they too were studio shoots – perhaps Ponkratov constructed sets inside empty apartments? In both films there is significant action outside the apartment blocks, especially in the wooded areas. Moscow appears to be like Paris with high-rise blocks some distance from the centre of the city. This kind of development is not often found in the same way in the UK (though the architecturally-famous high-rises of the Alton Estate in Roehampton that featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 make an interesting parallel). Particularly resonant are shots through the windows and over the slopes below the high-rise where the disintegrating family live. As my viewing companion remarked, the images towards the end of the film, with families enjoying tobogganing on the snowy slopes, looks almost like a Breughel painting. The three images above show the complex mise en scène of the apartment and the more naturalistic shots of the woodland walk home that Alyosha makes from school. The trailer below also has shots of the landscapes around the high-rises.
The static head-on camera is quite disturbing in its ‘immersive’ effect. At one point it is almost like we are sitting on the other side of the works canteen table as Boris and his immediate boss eat their lunch. Boris explores issues about the firm’s moral codes as his colleague eats noisily, occasionally dropping food from his fork. As one reviewer has pointed out, we become complicit with the ‘bad parents’ when we realise that we’ve been so wrapped up in watching and criticising them that we too have failed to notice that Alyosha has disappeared. Zvyagintsev and his collaborators use the ‘Scope frame very well. Several scenes are so detailed that we feel forced to look around the screen and in one delicious shot in the open-plan office space, we notice that somebody is playing Solitaire on their desktop – a moment of frivolity in the oppressive work space.
When Boris and Zhenya finally go to the police, the narrative does change to the extent that an element of both ‘mystery’ and ‘procedure’ takes over. The procedure structures the narrative, not through the police, but through the appearance of the volunteer search group comprising volunteers who are incredibly well-organised. The group is modelled on a real life organisation called ‘Liza Alert’, formed after the tragic conclusion to the disappearance of a 5 year-old girl. This is discussed in an excellent piece by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, March 2018. The police are not incompetent or uncaring as such, but simply overwhelmed by the number of missing persons and the paperwork required to progress anything. Inevitably, we make the comparison between the ineffectiveness of the police under Putin and the model of efficiency and common sense portrayed by the volunteers. They represent the possibilities of disinterested but public-spirited groups of citizens who care. They give their time and effort to a worthwhile cause. I’m tempted to think of them as representing what was good about the socialist state destroyed by rampant capitalism. Zvyagintsev shows us not just Boris and Zhenya, but many others in the worlds that they inhabit, trapped within a materialist world of screens, phones and selfies. This is presumably the ‘heavy-handedness’ some critics don’t like, but I find it a very powerful when I re-edit the film in my head and juxtapose the volunteers searching the forest and an abandoned Soviet era building with the selfie takers in a restaurant. I do have to agree, however, that Zvyagintsev tends make the women responsible for the worst excesses. Zhenya is hard, selfish and grasping. Boris is weak and at times pathetic and looks as if he has learned nothing as he moves into his new family set-up. The gender split is then repeated in other groups we see.
Whereas Aleksey Rozin is an actor, like some others in the cast familiar from other Zvyagintsev films, Maryana Spivak as Zhenya is appearing in only her second cinema feature. She is tall and athletic. Zvyagintsev has chosen to show off her body, not I think in a fetishised sexist way but perhaps as an example of consumerist obsession. We see her in the beauty parlour for a waxing and then in bed with her new partner. Similarly we see Boris making love to his heavily pregnant new partner. The scenes are shot quite differently. Boris and Masha are shot from some distance away in a darkened room. Zhenya and her new partner are in a modernist apartment with a dividing panel with a large mirror. Sex for Boris and Masha seems enthusiastic, sweaty and straightforward. Zhenya is presented in more studied poses. At the end of the film we see Zhenya’s athleticism expressed now as exercise on a running machine and she dressed in a shiny new ‘Russia’ tracksuit.
In some ways the ‘procedural’ leads us into thinking about the very successful long-form crime narratives of recent years – except that we understand that Loveless is an art film and we don’t necessarily expect a dramatic resolution. Instead we are returned to the mystery. I’d like to finish by referring again to Jonathan Romney’s piece ‘The Lost Boy’. Romney is one of the best of the current batch of critics and even when I might disagree with him, I can see that his arguments make sense. He comments on Zvyagintsev’s use of symbolism and how contemporary (younger?) audiences seem now to be impatient with it because of their experience of the excessive ‘wash’ of media images from so many sources. They resent the arrogance of someone who challenges them to spend time thinking about what might be being symbolised. This certainly makes sense. There seems to be a rush now to read images in a superficial way and for films to be enjoyed and celebrated if they have easily understood messages. That’s not the case with Zvyagintsev and I look forward to the next five films and their presentation of a complex world with few easy answers.
The previous four films by Zvyagintsev:
The Banishment (2007)
The Return (2003)
Every few years the international film community discovers a new director whose films win prizes at festivals and new fans around the world. Andrey Zvyagintsev first attracted attention with The Return in 2002, followed by The Banishment in 2007 and Elena in 2011. The director’s fourth feature Leviathan was one of the most celebrated and controversial films of 2014 and given the current belligerence of the Russian state, Zvyagintsev’s oblique commentaries on Russian society have begun to attract attention in the news media. What makes these films so compelling and distinctive?
This day school introduced Zvyagintsev as an unusual figure in contemporary cinema who worked for many years as an actor before directing an episode of a television drama series aged 36 in 2000. The move into feature films was rapid and The Return’s award of the Golden Lion in Venice was a reminder of another début win by Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood in 1962.
Zvyagintsev’s film’s have attracted audiences for three main reasons and these were the focus of the Day School:
- The stories resonate because of strong characters and universal themes (often with Biblical allusions) – which can also be interpreted in specific Russian contexts.
- Some fruitful collaborations with talented filmmakers to produce a powerful aesthetic appeal in terms of cinematography, music and sound and use of settings and landscape.
- A dedication to the ‘art’ of cinema and an obvious debt to several of the giants of art cinema such as Andrei Tarkovsky as well as an affinity with other contemporary art directors such as Nuri Bilge Ceylan.
The day included a complete screening of Zvyagintsev’s third feature Elena plus discussion-based sessions with extracts from the other three films and complementary material from Tarkovsky and Ceylan.
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”.
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:
[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)).
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.
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 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!