May 16, 2012


by Vadim Rizov


Elena is didactic filmmaking and in interviews, director Andrei Zvyagintsev hasn't been shy in explicitly stating his fundamental criticism of the contemporary Russian underclass. "This is how they will behave," he noted in an interview conducted at the film's Cannes premiere. "At one point we considered calling the film The Invasion of the Barbarians." "They" are the title character's (Nadezhda Markina) son Sergei (Aleksey Rozin) and his family, notably grandson Sasha (Igor Orgutsov), whose grades are so bad he'll end up serving mandatory army time unless the right college officials are bribed. Former nurse Elena wants far wealthier second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to provide the money, but he refuses on angry principle, insisting military discipline is just the right education for a directionless young man.

The harshest dialogue's always closest to the director's unambiguous public statements. Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) is a disappointment ("a goddamned hedonist," father grumbles), but he's still planning to leave her the bulk of his money. Her brusque, cynical affection cheers him up. "We're all bad seeds," she declares in deadpan resignation, declining Vladimir's suggestion to try maternity as a cure for disaffection. "What's irresponsible is producing children you know will be sick or doomed, because their parents are sick or doomed." (This echoes Zvyaginstev's own viewpoint exactly: "It's also a myth that procreation at any cost is a necessity.")


A cut from her verdict on contemporary Russian society's moral decay to Elena's infant grandson on a bed is repeated even more pointedly towards the end. When the camerawork turns unexpectedly handheld and frenzied to keep up with an eruption of youth gang violence, this cut again connects the innocent of today with the disaffectedly loutish street soldier of tomorrow.

Where Zvyaginstsev's first two films The Return and The Banishment emphasized the natural world (and the director's oft-noted reverence for Tarkovsky), here he leaves it after an opening shot fixed on a tree branch as morning sunlight rises. Dimly heard sirens and car alarms are fainter still inside. Vladimir's wealth lacks ostentation: his bare apartment contains high-end consumer goods, but its primary purpose is to dampen the outside world. His only out-of-apartment trek is a Mercedes drive to the gym, but Elena takes the train to visit her family at Moscow's Soviet-bloc(k)-tower fringes. The transit noise inescapably rises above the Philip Glass score, as hawkers offer adult magazine for the purchase of unashamed passengers. Charged with heightened, aggressively surround-sounded ambience, the bright-lit settings bristle with ominous undercurrents that finally come to the foreground.

Class differences aside, Elena and Vladimir share a mutually misplaced belief in the sanctity of family bonds, placing those ties above all other social and legal obligations if need be. The steps Elena takes to secure her loved ones' survival are spoiler territory, but they lead her to an act of violence for the purpose materially enriching her feckless family and keeping them close at hand. As they gather around a big-screen TV at the end, there's no sense that their new circumstances will set the stage for Elena's loved ones to put down their Playstation controls and get a job. (TV, unsurprisingly, is another thing Zvyagintsev hates: it's "a deformed mirror, that man chooses for himself because he doesn't want to deal with his own personality.") Elena's acts echo the darkest received narrative of Russia's post-USSR trajectory: that power and capital passed from one small group of hands to another (often the same), frequently through violent acts. The film declines to explicitly state how Vladimir made his fortune.


This is the most decorous of recent Russian films depicting violence (unreported to the police, who either actively ignore or perpetrate the incidents) as an unavoidable, commonplace factor of Russian life. These scorched-earth state-of-the-nation dispatches link stratified but equally morally bankrupt social tiers of corrupt national life. In Alexei Balabanov's Cargo 200, a roadside breakdown places a Communist Party functionary's relatively well-off young daughter in the hands of an older, murderous regional police captain in '80s Russia, while his 2010 A Stoker depicted mid-90s Russia as a place where oligarchs casually order contract hits, with the bodies driven in broad daylight to large industrial furnaces for destruction After an upper-class social worker is raped in Angelina Nikonova's Twilight Portrait, she takes tracking down one of the officers as a chance to put her ineffectual office work into practice by infiltrating his apartment and trying to reform him personally. And in Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy, a truck driver's detour to the countryside leaves him stranded and transformed into a mute murderous hulk.

Killings and class frictions are relentless, intertwined constants in all these films. Glazed windows block out the outside world in Vladimir's, while Sergey's apartment is depicted in striking long shot as one of dozens, one of many public tragedies on casual display. Austerely condemnatory, Zvyagintsev's argument is convincingly apocalyptic (its original incarnation was as an English-language end-of-days drama), hypnotically rendered in slow zooms and tensely prolonged shots, making for the most visceral of jeremiads.

[Elena is now playing at Film Forum in NYC. For tickets and info, visit the website.]

Bookmark and Share

Posted by ahillis at May 16, 2012 2:01 PM