Issue 70 (2020)

Aleksei Krasovskii: Elephant (Elefant, 2019)

reviewed by Emjay O’Shea © 2020

elefantOnce there was an elephant who escaped from the circus. He was terribly self-conscious about his size, and he ran away into the forest. There the animals had never seen an elephant, and the only large animal that they had heard of was a bear, so they began to call him Mishka (“little bear”). Since bears are supposed to be large, the elephant embraced this new identity and found happiness as Mishka.

This may not be the beginning of Aleksei Krasovskii’s Elephant, but it is the starting point, the center around which the characters’ lives and emotions revolve. Elephant tells the story of an ornery, aged children’s writer, Valentin Shubin (Aleksei Gus’kov) who, through a confluence of circumstances involving poor health, family problems, a wealthy investor, and the support of ordinary citizens, learns to reconnect with his old world and to embrace the new. Elephant is the work of an experienced and accomplished director: Krasovskii had already worked on a number of film and television projects before filming Elephant, garnering recognition for The Collector (Kollektioner, 2016) and hitting the headlines for his comedy on the Leningrad siege Holiday (Prazdnik, 2019). His experience clearly shines through in the mature, carefully composed Elephant; however, Krasovskii’s name was initially removed from the film’s titles following a dispute over the editing of the film with producer Aleksei Gus’kov (RIA Novosti 2019).

elefantIn a discussion with Shubin, the author’s wealthy French sponsor Vincent (played by Frédéric Beigbeder) tells him that “Before, in your books, there wasn’t only laughter. Children would laugh, but adults were sad. They understood that you wanted to express something else. Behind the story there was a deeper, more poetic meaning.” During the film, we hear other such comments about either the successes of Shubin’s previous works or of criticisms of his new ones. Some adults have learned to accept themselves thanks to Shubin’s works, others cherish them as gifts to be shared with their own children, and many come to tears when remembering the adventures of Mishka. The power and significance of Shubin’s works speak to the power that such books, films, and music inspire in us in real life and to our own power to support and inspire others.

elefantAn important question for this film is “what’s the point” [zachem]. Lecturing at the philological institute, Shubin discusses how, contrary to popular belief, one does not necessarily need to give a goal to each character, how it is possible to have a character who lacks a goal. Once again, the film’s meta-textuality shows its face—Shubin himself doesn’t have a goal. There is nothing he truly wants (not even the heart transplant he receives. This question is central to his growth as a character and to the meaning of the film as a whole. He is reactive (typically in a negative sense), never proactive, never reaching for a goal, only pushing away problems and people. However, this doesn’t mean that Shubin doesn’t need anything. Despite his protests, he is very much in need of connections to his past and to his new reality.

elefantThese connections unfold and are developed in a way very reminiscent of a romantic comedy. I would even go so far as to say that this is in all ways a romantic comedy, if its basis is platonic romance. The film’s plot opens up through the comedic development of the relationship between the carer Tosia (Polina Agureeva) and Shubin, and the film connects this relationship with those between Shubin and his daughter, and between Shubin and the world at large. Early in the film, Shubin remembers when his daughter was a child, picturing frolicking on the beach on the Gulf of Finland. This dreamy idealization is enhanced by disorienting, out-of-focus shots that the characters seem to walk in and out of at a close-up distance, creating an impressionistic effect. The Gulf is thus imbued with meaning, which is used later to draw emotional connections between Shubin and his fans (his crowd-funding video is set against the background of the Gulf) and then between Shubin and Tosia, as the final scene pictures them walking on the beach and talking in a way that directly refers to the early scene with his daughter.

The elephant Mishka represents an additional symbolic motif in this film. Throughout the film, its image recurs in multiple forms, most notably as a large mascot; beyond its narrative value, it is also an attractive aesthetic addition to the film. It is cute and enhances the nostalgic and child-like touches in the work, and also provides interesting visual contrast to the scenes of St Petersburg where it is pictured.

elefantA last significant motif of the film is that of magic. Illusion and magic accompany the viewer from the beginning of the film. In Shubin’s apartment, the walls are covered in Houdini posters. The magic and illusion here are double-sided, however. In a shot that scans the wall, the viewer drifts from the Houdini posters to a photo of Shubin’s daughter in her youth. Suggesting, simultaneously, Shubin’s own, familial disappearing act and a longing for the joy and magic that his books represented for him and his daughter and him in the past.

Elephant is quite a short film, but it successfully comes off as a whole, self-contained work. The film feels organized and thoughtful, with all the ups and downs, including the feel-good conclusion of a classic romantic comedy. Its family-friendly nostalgia and positive messages about embracing the world and the people around us make it a wonderful watch for all of us, whether we are still in primary school or simply taller children.

Emjay O’Shea
University of Pittsburgh

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Works Cited

RIA Novosti. 2019. “Rezhisser Krasnovskii raskryl detali konflikta s prodiuserami fil'ma 'Elefant'.“ 6 August.

Elephant, Russia, 2019
Color, 77 minutes
Director: Aleksei Krasovskii
Script: Aleksei Krasovskii
DoP: Sergei Astakhov
Music: Dmitrii Selipanov, Mikhail Morskov, Artem Fedotov
Production Design: Vadim Raspopov
Cast: Aleksei Gus’kov, Polina Agureeva, Evgeniia Dmitrieva, Yan Tsapnik, Frédéric Beigbeder
Producer: Aleksei Gus’kov, Sergei Selianov
Production Company: 58.5 Production, CTB

Aleksei Krasovskii: Elephant (Elefant, 2019)

reviewed by Emjay O’Shea © 2020

Updated: 2020