Issue 35 (2012)
Andrei Zviagintsev: Elena (2011)
reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2012
Breathtaking cinematography and sound design. Potent deployment of its musical score. A small cast, almost all of them related by bonds of family, a family riven by growing tension. A tension which explodes into a violent, unexpected death and its shattering consequences. A world in which men, fathers are at the centre of attention and women are confined to minor roles. A plot which makes symbolic, archetypical use of characters, houses and landscapes, with a strong degree of abstraction and direct reference to biblical models. A film with a powerfully suggestive title, The Return, The Banishment. These are all things which we have come to expect from a feature film directed by Andrei Zviagintsev.
Many of these elements are still present in Zviagintsev’s new film—we are again confined to the world of a family, and once more there is a sudden death with far-reaching consequences. But this time the dominant formal quality is a bracing artistic and allusive reticence, a reticence apparent in the visual and narrative treatment of that death. And in a significant and welcome turn after the overtly symbolic and disturbingly instrumental use of the main female character, the wife, Vera in The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007), this time the central character is a woman, a mother and grandmother, whose point of view and whose actions trigger the plot of the film, something reflected in its very title, Elena. (Neither Alex in The Banishment nor the nameless father of The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003) had the privilege of having the film named after him.) The new Russian cinema has not been generous in leading roles for grandmothers—one thinks of the eponymous heroine of Aleksandr Sokurov’s Aleksandra (2006), who shares with Elena an abiding concern for the dangers army service presents to a grandson. But Aleksandra Nikolaevna was a woman of strong views and forceful opinions, played by the diva Galina Vishnevskaia, and her views about Russia and its role often ventriloquised those of Sokurov himself (Condee 2007). And her grandson was a thoughtful, brave and charismatic Russian officer. Elena Anatol’evna, by contrast, is an ordinary Russian woman, not educated enough to know the meaning of the word ‘hedonist’, and the grandson for whom she risks everything is an idle, worthless lay-about. So Zviagintsev’s insistence on using her name for the title of his film – not calling it, for example, Once There Lived a Simple Woman (Zhila-byla odna baba), which is the title of the film directed by Andrei Smirnov that was its main rival for the 2011 “White Elephant” awards—is already evidence of a certain artistic restlessness and a desire to test himself in new areas.
By the time that Vladimir, Elena’s husband, a wealthy retired businessman, has told her—in almost the film’s first words, nine minutes into its running time - that the breakfast porridge is excellent [Ovsianka otlichnaia] we have learned a great deal about their life together. Elena opens in a succession of extended shots with a completely static camera, first through a tree outside their flat in an elite block in the centre of Moscow, then of the flat’s cool, sterile interiors. Waking just before her alarm goes off in a small bed in a separate room, Elena has risen and combed her hair before a mirror. She has drawn the kitchen curtains and opened the fridge before going into the master bedroom, where she pulls more curtains and wakes her husband. While he shaves in their luxurious bathroom, she makes his bed and begins to prepare his breakfast. These are the ritual actions of a cook-wife, a nurse-wife, and the bed-making rhymes visually with the actions of a nurse later in the film when Vladimir leaves hospital after recovering from his heart attack. And it is in a scene in this hospital that we find out that Elena is, indeed, a former nurse and that the couple had first met in this very place, ten years previously, when Vladimir was being treated for appendicitis. So this is not a marriage with deep roots (they have been formally married for only two years—perhaps his health problems had by then made it expedient for him to have someone to live in) but an arrangement and Elena is a performer of the role of wife, here to do the cooking, the cleaning, the nursing, and, when Vladimir requires it, to be his sexual partner. Though Vladimir seems to feel some affection for Elena, he treats her like a servant, firing out instructions and not even saying goodbye as he leaves the flat to go to his elite health club. Nevertheless, the arrangement also suits Elena, since it makes her able to fund her hopeless son and his family by means of her pension and hand-outs from an increasingly unwilling Vladimir.
But as the breakfast-time argument that follows his praise of the porridge reveals, for each of them, real family allegiance lies elsewhere, for Vladimir with his spoilt and cynical daughter Katia (it is she whom he calls a hedonist) and for Elena with her out-of-work son Sergei, his wife Tat’iana and their two boys, Sasha, the would-be recruit whom his parents want to turn into a student, and a nameless toddler. So when, rendered sentient of his mortality by the heart attack, Vladimir foolishly tells Elena that he intends to make a will which will leave the bulk of his estate to Katia and confirms that he is no longer ready to support someone to whom he feels no family tie [Chuzhoi mne chelovek], Elena avenges herself for the years of inattention and petty humiliation.
After their initial argument subsides into an agreement not to teach each other how to treat their offspring, Elena calls at the bank for her pension and boards the elektrichka, on which the ubiquitous magazine-seller offers “those who do not like to be bored on the journey,” the usual depressing mix of “Liza for the charming ladies, scan-words, crosswords, erotic magazines and today’s press.” Once she has arrived at the godforsaken suburb where Serezha lives, she walks through waste ground past a row of cooling towers, past the graffiti both inside and outside the forlorn high-rise and takes the lift to her son’s home. Almost all of Elena takes place either in the large, empty flat of Vladimir or the small, cluttered flat of Sergei, with Elena the emissary between these two worlds. When she arrives, Sasha, the recipient of her generosity and concern, can scarcely tear himself away from his computer game, at which Sergei later joins him in witless community, leaving downtrodden Tat’iana to cajole them into joining their benefactor in the kitchen. Everything about this family is depressing, from their lack of work to their lack of conversation, from their drab clothes to their tawdry belongings. Zviagintsev allows the formerly victorious class no positive qualities, and none of Katia’s articulacy to plead their cause. The one sign of energy is the baby boy (who at first might be taken for a grandson) and when it later emerges that Tania is pregnant again, the family’s association with life and fertility is firmly established, explicitly contrasting them with Vladimir and his daughter. Katia, tough-minded, mocking, intelligent, eloquent Katia, fertile only in the area of language, disappoints her father by explicitly refusing to have children lest they turn out, because of the “bad seed” [gniloe semia] that his own bad parenting represents, to be “not quite human” [nedocheloveki] like them. And Vladimir’s powers are waning. For all his efforts on the treadmill and in the pool, the “Enjoy Fitness” club becomes, somehow appropriately, the site of his heart attack (he is saved from drowning by a lithe young blonde lifeguard); and the Viagra which makes sexual encounters with his wife possible also turns out to be the instrument of his murder.
So one reading of the plot’s meaning is as allegory of class conflict, a conflict encapsulated in another of the arguments between Vladimir and Elena, the only place in the film in which, after he once again refuses to help Sasha, she raises her voice to ask him what right people like him have to think that they are special. Elena’s murder of her husband and the occupation of his flat at the end of the film by Sergei and his brood could be read as the revenge of the downtrodden class upon those who cheat, exploit and ignore them, a de-dramatised version of the Moscow killing of an oligarch in Petr Lutsik’s Outskirts (Okraina, 1998), and a sign, consistent with recent political developments, that the decade-long pact between the moneyed new class and the population as a whole is beginning to break down.
The other Moscow is occasionally glimpsed in Elena, particularly through the presence of a group of guest workers in fluorescent uniforms who file past unnoticed by Vladimir as he channel-hops, hermetically sealed into his expensive Audi on the way to the gym, and whom Sasha watches playing football in the yard below the flat at the end. But this social reading is not forced in the film, which could equally be considered to be about the gap between generations, in which the pensioners, Vladimir and Elena, stand for hard work, self-help and responsibility, while their children, rich or poor, ‘bad seed’ on both sides, represent dependence, parasitical fecklessness and inertia. Indeed, there are as many links between the two worlds as there are contrasts. No one in either flat ever really listens to each other. No one reads books, or listens to music, there are no pictures on the walls, no sign at all of any interest in culture. And both worlds are dominated by money. ‘I was never the point of your life. Only money,’ Katia tells her father, money he clearly needs to run his smart flat, his expensive car, his gym and hospital fees, his fancy lawyer. Sergei is fixated on money too, money which he needs, as he stresses to his mother, to feed his growing family and to pay the bribes to keep Sasha out of the army and the ‘hot spots’ to the south.
More important to the film’s narrative than either class or generation conflict, however, are ties of family, and it is this that takes Elena beyond readings narrowly focussed on a particular time and place and gracefully into the same symbolic territory occupied by The Return and The Banishment. The only occasion on which Vladimir shows real human warmth and affection is in his banter with his errant daughter in the hospital room. Elena, likewise, is defined absolutely by her role as mother, a point reiterated after the murder of Vladimir by the display of her family photographs, which occupy the whole of an as yet unseen wall of the flat. (As in the two earlier films, family photographs provide a key to the narrative ’s meaning.) Blind to her child’s faults, like the matriarch in Evgenii Bauer’s Life for a Life (Zhizn’ za zhizn’ 1916), she is ready, as was Khromova, to kill the man whose financial decisions she perceives to have damaged that child’s prospects, and then to cover her tracks.
The artistic restraint mentioned earlier pervades all aspects of the production, from the cinematography of Mikhail Krichman (who has worked on all three of Zviagintsev’s features), to the subdued palette of cool blues and greens, browns, fawns and blacks (there is nothing bright red or yellow in Elena), to the dazzlingly tight editing of a succession of short scenes in the middle of the film, to the clean, potent sound design and the frugal use of the music of Philip Glass’s Third Symphony, the hypnotically monotonous strains of which work particularly effectively when Vladimir is pounding along on the treadmill or Elena is sitting pensively on the elektrichka. The plot, too, is pared down and the dialogue is sparse (the script, as for The Banishment, is by Zviagintsev and Oleg Negin). This makes the rare occasions of narrative or formal drama all the more effective, whether it is the raising of voices, the banging of kitchenware after an argument, the exaggerated sound of Elena’s breathing after the murder or the tremulous movement of the camera through the thicket when Sasha and his friends run off at the end of the film to engage in a pointless ritual fight with another group of losers.
Restraint is also achieved by omission. In the fascinating documentary Elena. Work on the Film (Elena. Rabota nad fil’mom) which was made over the entire production period and, at 101 minutes, lasts only four minutes less than Elena itself, we see extracts from two scenes which Zviagintsev later discarded. In one Katia’s boyfriend sits at his computer, watching Slavoj Žižek, in Buenos Aires, describing love as vainglorious and selfish; in the other, lying in his hospital bed and feeling emotional after the visit of his daughter, Vladimir watches a film about a plague of locusts. Both scenes are transparently illustrative of the film’s main concerns, but both were eventually deemed superfluous. Zviagintsev told Irina Liubarskaia that the locust scene was “too explicit” [slishkom v lob], an opinion that he might not have held when he was making The Banishment (Zviagintsev 2011: 69).
Disagreement and resentment within a family lead to violent death in all three of Zviagintsev’s feature films and in the other two the death has powerfully dramatic consequences. But though it is only in Elena that the death is a criminal act, this time Zviagintsev consistently downplays the excitement, while teasing the viewer through plot, music and ominous sounds (the film opens with the sinister cawing of crows) into expecting more drama than he is prepared to deliver. Elena’s killing of Vladimir (itself shown with remarkable reticence, and without any last minute realisation on his part that his wife has betrayed him) is followed by a succession of scenes in which the possibility of detection or retribution is raised but deflected. The doctor who has to sign the death certificate accepts the explanation that Vladimir had taken his Viagra (against the instructions for those who have just suffered a heart attack) without Elena’s knowledge, that she “did not even know he had the pills.” Katia accepts that there was no money in Vladimir’s safe (“You have to trust me, Katia.”). When the elektrichka suddenly stops as Elena is on the way to deliver the stolen money to her family, she instinctively clutches her bag and you wonder whether she is going to be robbed, as you do when the lights go out in Serezha’s flat just after she has put the money on the table. When Sasha rushes off to meet his no-good friends you imagine that he is going to blab about the family’s sudden good fortune, and when he is knocked to the ground and brutally beaten in the fight by the cooling towers you assume that he will never get up. When his tiny brother is left alone on Vladimir’s huge bed you fear that he may fall off and break his neck. None of this happens and Elena and her family get their desires.
But this is not a crime without punishment. Elena’s violent act destroys her own integrity, an awareness of which is briefly evidenced by the feral, possibly remorseful groans she emits during the funeral service. So she is powerless to resist when in the final sequence her ghastly family take over Vladimir’s flat. Within minutes, Sergei talks of changing the layout, adding a wall so that the student can have his own room, of “coming to an arrangement with Katia.” He asks his mother whether “we’ve got any beer” and slumps in front of the large-screen television in the sitting room to watch a programme in which glib Russian bimbos discuss their recent conquests. Sasha stands on the balcony and spits vacantly, precisely echoing Sergei’s action on the balcony of their flat in the suburbs at the start of the film, an action which delicately reasserts their complicity. Both father and son feel at home here. The baby brother has his nappy changed on Vladimir’s bed. Tania has already resumed her role as family drudge. Elena will have plenty of time to learn the Sartrean lesson that “hell is other people.”
Elena started life as Helen, a script commissioned by a British producer, Oliver Dungey, who had asked four directors from around the world to make four full-length films on the theme of apocalypse. But biblical allusion is used more sparingly here than in the two earlier films, in part because none of the characters in Elena is graced with religious sensibility. After Vladimir’s heart attack, Elena makes a visit to a church but (like Artem Kazakov at the end of Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200 [Gruz 200, 2007]), she knows nothing of its rites, and has to ask the unsympathetic woman who has just scolded her for not covering her head to which saint she should light her candle. Later, when she challenges her husband over his arrogant acceptance of social inequality, there is something shocking about her invocation of Christ’s words from the parable of the labourers in the vineyard “And the last shall be first and the first last” (“for many are called but few are chosen,” Matthew 20.16), given that thoughts of labour do not seem to occupy the minds of Sergei and his family unduly. For Vladimir, moreover, this is all “skazki” (fairy tales), “bibleiskie istorii” (Biblical stories) and there will certainly be no equality and brotherhood outside of the Kingdom of Heaven.
This film’s most consistent symbol is the television set, which visually and aurally invades the space from its opening to its closing sequence. There seems to be a set in every room of Serezha’s flat, even a small one on the top of the fridge in the kitchen. Sasha uses his to play computer games on which he is depressingly unable to “get to another level.” As for Vladimir and Elena, it is notable that their TV watching is always a solitary activity. (Even the affectless Shultes, a Moscow thief like Elena, in Bakur Bakuradze’s 2008 film, watched the television in silent communion with his bedridden mother and his conscript brother). While Elena is preparing breakfast she watches programmes about food and healthy living, but she turns them off before Vladimir sits down at the table. His own taste runs to sports broadcasts, athletics and football, programmes to which he falls asleep while lying in bed. After he is dead Elena allows herself the luxury of watching while she eats, a report on a “konkurs kolbasy,” a competition to find the best sausage. It is surely part of her punishment that at the end Sergei has decided what they are to watch and Elena’s entire family sit in front of the screen in a harsh parody of family happiness.
The use of symbolism is most sustained in the final sequences of the film, after Elena, the only character for whom the viewer has previously felt any real sympathy, has crossed the moral boundary, and it is here that the bleakness of Zviagintsev’s vision is most apparent. When the train re-starts we see that it had been stopped by a collision with a white horse at a level crossing. A brief glimpse of the animal, which now lies dead by the track, reminds us of its symbolic implication in classical Russian literature. After Elena arrives in the suburbs for the last time, imagery of beauty destroyed gives way to imagery of hell. When she has passed the stolen money to her son the lights suddenly go out in the entire flat. “Game over,” says game-boy Sasha. Sergei goes out into the hallway and notices that the lights are out “Vo vsem dome” (in the entire building), and an unseen man sardonically corrects him: “Vo vsem mire” (in the entire world), echoing Katia’s earlier insistence to her father that the end of the world (“Konets sveta”) is imminent. Images of hellish darkness co-exist with image of infernal fire—the blood-orange setting sun, the bonfire lit by the hoodlum lads in the shadow of the cooling towers.
Elena is graced by masterly acting from all of its principals. There is a scene in Elena. Work on the Film in which on 28 February 2010, a mere thirty nine days before shooting is due to begin, Zviagintsev telephones Andrei Smirnov to confirm that he wants him for the role of Vladimir. When Smirnov explains that delays on Once There Lived a Simple Woman mean that he cannot accept the part, Zviagintsev is visibly distraught and describes it as a “catastrophe.” Eventually Smirnov changed his mind and he rewards Zviagintsev’s loyalty with a convincing embodiment of an egotistical old man unwilling to be contraried, whose one weakness is his love for his daughter. In the small but crucial role of the beautiful, brittle, acerbic Katia, Elena Liadova is utterly compelling, while Aleksei Rozin is persuasive in the less rewarding part of the apathetic Sergei. But the film, of course, belongs to Nadezhda Markina, an actress much admired for her work at the Taganka Theater and, in the 1990s, at the Malaia Bronnaia Theater, in particular for her Regan in Sergei Zhenovach’s King Lear (1992), but who seems to have spent most of the last decade playing somebody’s mother in TV serials. Here she plays Elena with exceptional sensitivity and nuance, displaying sometimes the heaviness and exhaustion that comes from constant pleading and negotiation, at others her character’s patience and delicacy, her face always alive with subtly evoked emotion.
Markina was shortlisted for Best Actress in the 2011 European Film Awards and Elena won the Special Jury Prize in the Un certain regard section of the Cannes Film Festival. In the first of the major Russian cinematic award ceremonies for 2011, the “White Elephant” award of the Russian Guild of Film Critics and Scholars, which took place on 22 December 2011, Elena was nominated in seven categories, and given three awards: as best film, to Zviagintsev for best direction, and to Elena Liadova, for best supporting actress. Nadezhda Markina was overlooked for the best actress award in favor of Dar’ia Ekamasova, for the role of Varvara, the longsuffering heroine of Smirnov’s epic Once There Lived a Simple Woman, leading this viewer to conclude that the Russian critics were more impressed this year by histrionic capacity than by consummate but unostentatious professionalism. Days later the nominations were announced for the second of the year’s major awards, the Golden Eagle, the prize of the National Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences of Russia. Once again Elena is the leading contender, nominated in ten categories, as best film and for best direction, script, leading actress, supporting actress, cinematography, editing, production design, music and sound design. The plethora of prizes and nominations the film has gained in a full range of categories is testament to the supreme confidence and professionalism that marks every aspect of Elena, a confidence due in part to the crew’s experience in collaborating with Zviagintsev. As well as the peerless Mikhail Krichman, the co-scriptwriter, Oleg Negin, the editor, Anna Mass, the production designer, Andrei Ponkratov and the sound designer, Andrei Dergachev all worked on The Banishment. Only the actors are new (though Elena Liadova provided the voice for Vera in The Banishment).
Elena combines an absorbing story about humanly and socially recognisable people with an unforced openness to allegorical interpretation, while maintaining the formal ambition of Zviagintsev’s earlier films. It is its formal perfection that provides the main source of pleasure and admiration in the viewer, from the opening scene, with its ominously cawing crows in the tree outside Vladimir’s flat to its exact repetition at the end when the lumpen have taken possession. The obsessive rigour needed to make a film of such quality is everywhere apparent in the documentary about its production and is best encapsulated in the last two sentences of Andrei Zviagintsev’s interview with Irina Liubarskaia:
The main hero of the film for me is the film language, the rest is the characters. Well and of course the main heroine is the idea (Zviagintsev 2011: 70).
1] The documentary is one of the discs in the special two-disc edition of the film released in Russia by Karmen-Fil’m in 2011. The other disc contains the film with optional Russian and English subtitles.
2] According to Zviagintsev’s interview with Ol’ga Grinkrug, on reading the script Dungey had retorted: “What are you doing, fellows? I offer you a 7-8 million-dollar project, and you give me a story that will cost 2.5 million dollars about a couple of pensioners in a single interior.” Zviagintsev and Negin withdrew their script.
University College London
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Condee, Nancy, “Aleksandr Sokurov: Alexandra (Aleksandra, 2007),” KinoKultura, 18 (2007).
Zviagintsev, Andrei. 2011b. “Vne KANNkurentsii,” Interview with Irina Liubarskaia. Itogi 21: 68-70.
Zviagintsev, Andrei, “Avtor dolzhen delat’ kino i molchat’ o nem,” interview with Ol’ga Grinkrug, RIA Novosti, 20 May 2011.
Elena, Russia, 2011
Colour, 105 minutes
Director: Andrei Zviagintsev
Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zviagintsev
Director of Photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production design: Andrei Ponkratov
Sound design: Andrei Dergachev
Editing: Anna Mass
Music: Philip Glass, Third Symphony
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrei Smirnov, Elena Liadova, Aleksei Rozin, Evgeniia Konushkina, Igor´ Ogurtsov, Vasilii Michkov
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel´kumov
Executive Producer: Ekaterina Marakulina
Non-Stop Production, with the support of Fond kino Rossiiskoi Federatsii
Andrei Zviagintsev: Elena (2011)
reviewed by Julian Graffy © 2012