Issue 39 (2013)
Andrei Zviagintsev: Elena (2011)
re-reviewed by Mariia Kondratova © 2013
Andrei Zviagintsev’s Elena could be called The Others if this title would not evoke so many immediate associations with Ridley Scott’s and James Cameron’s space thrillers.
Tragedy as genre is often connected to representations about historical cataclysms or acts of nature; in a word: with cinematic (or theatrical) scale. But if we look at Shakespeare’s oeuvre—as the recognized master of the genre—it becomes clear that the true stuff of tragedy is not war and revolution (they are no more than a backdrop), but private life. Both Hamlet and King Lear are, first of all, family dramas, and the fact that the heroes wear a crown could be considered a forgivable concession to the social psychology of the time when man was judged, first of all, by his origin.
Family life is tragic, as has always been recognized by Christianity, which likens the wreath of marriage to that of martyrdom. The “non-confluence and indivisibility” of lives connected through family ties, conflicts between the “natural” biological functions of marriage and social norms (which change with time), love, jealousy, readiness to surrender and the desire to dominate, as well as any general contradictions in married life easily lead to extremes, including stories with a bad ending.
Family, thus, is the ideal material for tragedy. Therefore Zviagintsev—a director to whom, according to his own confession, the tragic mode comes naturally—again and again encloses the action of his films in a narrow family circle. Incidentally, this “family line” in his oeuvre links him more to Ingmar Bergman than to Andrei Tarkovsky, to whom he is constantly compared.
Both critics and fans of Zviagintsev’s films tend to make the same mistake: they confuse the material used with and the central theme. Such banalities as “abortion is bad” or “parents love children despite their deficiencies” may form the basis only for the discussion of a soap opera. At the heart of each of Zviagintsev’s films lies a fundamental dilemma, which goes beyond everyday life; and this dilemma is the driving force of the story told. In The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), it is the dilemma of knowledge and belief, the rational search for a “proof” of paternal love and the reckless trust which assumes that even arbitrariness may be a blessing if it comes from the Father. In The Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007) the female—life-giving and vulnerable—beginning resists the firmness and cruelty of the world of “real men.” In Elena the core of the conflict and its twisted may be defined simply through the opposition between “others” (one’s own/someone else’s).
Such a perception of the world is deeply rooted in history. The distinction between “mine” (my tribe, my people, my country) and “another’s” is the most ancient manner of human self-determination: “the words ‘man’, ‘people’ (variants of ‘my own’ and ‘mine’, of ‘real people’) in different languages and in different corners of the ecumene were the first names for human groups” (Kozlov). A similar juxtaposition is practically always used to confirm the superiority of the “own” and for the much more dangerous idea of the dehumanisation of the “other.” There is no fairness here: one’s own is forgiven any bad deed, while “the others” are blamed even for the good deeds. The formulation “he’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch” goes much further than a political anecdote. The ideas of liberalism and individualism—in the visible antagonism of “communal” and “traditional” heritage—have given a new, powerful incentive for the development of such a world view. What is the “war of everybody against everyone” if not an extreme case of inter-ethnic conflicts, where each man is a “tribe” waging a war against the others? A war in which “everything is permitted that is not forbidden by the law.” But can one really rely on the law when there are no moral restrictions on “strangers?”
Fortunately (for some, maybe, unfortunately), in reality man does not quite correspond to such an individualistic model. The tendency for cooperation with other people has no less deep (including biological) roots in human nature than have competition and enmity. Few people are seduced by the absolute freedom of the abject; we love and want to be loved, we worry about separation and dissociation. Even if that is not so, the revolutionary declaration that “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28) could hardly have gathered so many supporters in the first century of our era, nor could the slogan “Proletarians of all countries, unite!” have inspired millions in the 20th century.
The desires are mutually exclusive: on the one hand, to unite with the loved one in support and care, and on the other, to stand apart in a bubble of egoism: “I am by myself,” “I owe nobody anything”—alternately and simultaneously torment the soul of the modern “civilized” man. These are the driving forces of the tragedy that develops in Elena.
Family in a traditional community is the major embodiment of the idea of “one’s own;” in civilized (and highly competitive) societies it is the last stronghold. Many critics consider the marriage between the protagonists unmotivated. Why, they say, should Vladimir, the successful hero of Andrei Smirnov, need such a “simple” woman? Such men marry only models. But that’s just the point: however rich and successful a man may be, however much he has been convinced by the ideology that “everything is for sale and can be bought”—for himself he wants something else: a non-mercenary human heart, care not for money, and sympathy personally for himself instead of his status and money. Even the most ardent defender of market forces would like some non-market force when it comes to feelings. Obviously, from Elena (played by Nadezhda Markina) he receives (or hopes to receive) such care. In the pair of the “rich old man and the young model” the element of sale and purchase would be too obvious. And why would he need a model? As a standard demonstration of status and solvency? At his age and in his position he no longer needs to prove anything to anybody. He can afford to keep his private life his private affair. This woman cares for him, he wants this woman: her fidelity and personal unselfishness have been tested over several years of life together. Why not marry, legalise the state of affairs as a long-term union, including joint housekeeping et cetera?
Wanting all the blessings of domestic life, sincere and not “market-driven” care, Vladimir all the same would like to remain a man “by himself,” who owes “nothing to anybody.” “And why should he help that lazy, useless cattle?” spectators and commentators ask indignantly when the hero refuses to give Elena money for her grandson. There is a simple and boring answer to this question: “Because they’re family.” Because family are “one’s own,” and one should help them—not because they are “good” and “worthy,” but because they are “one’s own.” In the Russian language the relationship between families that are united through marriage is expressed in the capacious verb porodnit’sia—to become related. It reflects the obvious acceptance of the husband’s (wife’s) family to the circle of relations of “one’s own” in traditional communities.
When Vladimir refuses his wife’s request to help her grandson, he refuses not money. From the position of modern individualism declaring the right to decide who is “one’s own” and who is “another,” he refuses his wife’s relatives the right to be related to him, thus trampling on century-long, thousand-year-old norms of communal life. This is a highly rational decision. Smirnov’s hero is a on the whole a rather rational man, yet he is not very bright (a typical combination, by the way). He wants to take what’s convenient and reject what’s unnecessary without reflecting on how “convenient” and “unnecessary” correspond and whether they are parts of the same, inseparable whole. To take the best features (caress, fidelity, unselfish devotion) from traditional marriage and reject what is “superfluous,” “imposed,” “outdated”: reciprocity and mutual care. With all his erudition, he does not realise that to say to his wife “your children are strangers to me,” means the same as if to say: “you are a stranger to me.” Break. He does not here refuse financial help to Elena’s son and grandson, but he rejects the existence of second-rate people who are nevertheless close to him. It is this role of an outcast that Elena feels when in reply to his refusal she asks: “”Why do you, the rich, consider yourselves better than others?”
This counter-question is the exact answer to the monologue pronounced by Smirnov’s hero in justification of the “practical” position. Elena remembers the evangelical “And the last will become the first,” giving her husband occasion for the next sarcastic retort. The self-assured individualist rejects both traditional patrimonial morals—assuming that in a family everyone is “one’s own”—and Christian morality proclaiming equality before Christ. But, having twice rejected his wife and her family, he still expects her to treat him as “one’s own.” Ultimately, this is a fantastic aberration of the perception of reality, showing his complete inability to put himself into her place. The “one’s own/another’s” is a double-edged sword. Alienation never occurs unilaterally. Elena, too, will look at her husband with the judicious view of a “stranger,” and will see not the man with merits and demerits, but a handicap. The rest is predictable.
This is not about a justification for Elena’s action. Tragedy is a tragedy precisely because we rarely encounter here the righteous and innocent (unless in supporting roles). Can we justify Hamlet, the Danish prince, who causes the death of many people while exacting revenge for his father? Yet Shakespeare’s play is no apologia for Hamlet, but only a sad statement about the rotten state of Denmark and the lost link of times, which means that the time has come for an offended Hamlet, who find the events unbearable. The same is true for Elena, which—according to the director—was conceived as a film about the apocalypse. If the family turns from a place of kinship, a circle of “one’s own”, into a polygon of mutual alienation, then anything can happen in such family. There is no meanness or cruelty man is incapable of in relation to “another,” and pity on him who goes through that temptation: to see in a loved one a low creature unworthy of care or compassion. Not accidentally the film contains an episode where some local bum or gastarbeiter is beaten up. This scene not simply characterizes Elena’s grandson, without leaving the spectator in any illusion about the human qualities of the young man, but it takes the story onto a social (and ultimately, universal) level. Elena’s husband declares as “strangers” his wife’s relatives and himself becomes a stranger for her; the company of teenagers, affirming themselves in combat, beat up strangers (the gastarbeiter). All these actions are different sides of the same medal: of the growing general alienation which is, for the time being, covered by a thin layer of “civilization;” but at any moment this layer can break into a devilish grin of hatred against everybody and all. This hatred can no longer be constrained through customs (the disintegration of the natural family and patrimonial links) or reason (the refusal of Christian and humanistic values).
The symmetrical structure of the film (he/she, his daughter/her son) tests the viewer’s choice: Who does the spectator identify with? My impression (without claiming sociological foundation) is that even before the crime, the fine and intelligent Russian spectator, the festival-goer and art-house viewer, unequivocally sides with the rich and educated over the poor and simple. In this sense Maxim Kantor’s statement is confirmed: that the Russian educated class strongly exaggerates its love for the “small people” (Kantor 2011). Two equally inutile heirs are displayed on the screen, but would anyone call Katia (played by Elena Liadova) a piece of cattle? It seems that, if a clever and educated person (such as Katia) lives an empty, parasitic life, then more should be expected from her than from those to whom beer and television represents a full life. Yet there seems to be less expectation here, because for a certain audience, Katia is “their own”—and Sergei is not. Her elegant clothes, good make-up, her free, ironic manner of dialogue with a readiness to insert into her competent speech a rough, “low” word, even some prudent cynicism—for the educated spectator all this is a sign of “our man,” while the sweatpants of Elena’s son, the cluttered and inelegant life of this family is rejected with hostility as signs of “cattle” (a word introduced by “decent people” for the dehumanised others, the less “decent” ones). But essentially the representatives of the younger generation share attributes of parasitism, indifference, and egoism. Sergei (played by Aleksei Rozin) is maybe shown from his best side: in a way, he sticks to his family, even expresses concern for his relatives (true, he quickly offloads this onto others), and shows gratitude, while Katia does not care about anybody or anything, and accepts her father’s living allowance as something natural. Nevertheless, Katia is “brisk, capricious, charismatic, sharp-tongued, with a sense of humour”, while Sergei and his family are “cockroaches,” as described by bloggers and reviewers. You feel the difference...
Perhaps the main lesson of the film consists in the following: if we, educated and familiar with evangelical precepts and good manners, without a thought stick the label “cattle” on practical strangers and forgive evil when it is invested in forms that we like, then what do we want from others: from the poor, uneducated and those deprived of civil rights? Alienation is spreading in the world (and the film shows this) not only in the savagery of the poor, but also in the arrogance of the clever. Fascism does not necessarily take the forms it did during the Third Reich. The refusal of a close one in the right to a human relation on the basis of his lack of erudition and inability “to succeed” is no better than superiority “by birth.” The apocalypse happens here and now, in your soul and in my soul.
Translated by Birgit Beumers
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First published in Russian in Sem’ia i shkola 1 (2012). Reprinted on AZ Film
First reviewed in KinoKultura 35 by Julian Graffy.
Kantor, Maksim (2011), “Lishnii chelovek sredi lishnikh liudei”, Polit.ru 27 October.
Kozlov, Semen (2009), “Istoriia, zapisannaia v imeni narodoov,” Nezavisimaia gazeta 14 October.
Elena, Russia, 2011
Colour, 109 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)
re-reviewed by Mariia Kondratova © 2013