[A]ndrei Zvyagintsev is one of the most interesting among active filmmakers today. He has only made three feature films. Each of those three films is built, to put it in literary terms, on the scale of a novella rather than an epic novel. Each film delves with aspects of family bonding—or at least that provides the least common factor for the tales, only to multiply and enlarge on aspects of an individual’s life beyond the family, subjects often relating to psychology, politics, sociology and religion. And that is what makes any Zvyagintsev film interesting—its universality and its inward looking questions, all open ended for the viewer to ponder over after the movie gets over. And Elena is true to that spirit.
Famous Russian novels (later made into films) often had for their titles mere names—Anna Karenina or Dr Zhivago. But those novels went beyond those ordinary names. (A few US films, such as Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, also used ordinary individual’s names as titles of movies.) This is the case of Elena, the movie. Elena is the lead character, an ordinary individual. Yet, she represents much more than a simple individual. She represents a social class, a generation, and the mother hen of a family. She combines diametrically opposing elements of the angelic Florence Nightingale and a cool, calculated villain. Like a Michael Clayton, you can spot Elenas in our society.
The basic story of Elena is of a humble matronly nurse who marries a rich man, taking care of his needs from hospital, where they first met during a hospitalization, to his elegant home in the evening of his life. The obvious strand of the story is the social disconnect between husband and wife, even though both are content and obviously need each other. The woman needs the money and social standing of her husband, and the man needs a woman for companionship and personal care and to manage his upscale apartment. The rich man has a “hedonistic” daughter from a previous marriage, who still loves her father in an aloof manner and lives her own life far from the “family”. The father, in contrast, cares for the prodigal daughter and is concerned about her future, while he is least concerned about his wife’s progeny.
Elena has her own brood, from a previous marriage. A son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson with limited means and ability, who seem to survive on Elena’s financial contributions, constitute the other branch of the family tree. After the initial introductions of the state of Elena’s extended family, the story of Elena the movie takes off to a higher altitude as the drama progresses from the preliminaries into intrigue culminating in an ending that will make an intelligent viewer ponder over the various events in the film.
To assess the film as a mere tale of two social classes in modern-day Russia would be missing the wood for the trees. It is indeed a tale of the “invasion of the barbarians”—an original title Zvyagintsev had toyed with using. The sharp contrast of the overhead shot of the rich old man in his bed early in the film, with the overhead shot of Elena’s grandchild lying in the center of an oversized bed is only one layer of the rich screenplay of Elena.
If a viewer thought the film was a tale on class inequalities in Russia, it would be relevant to hear what the director has to say on the film. To quote Zvyagintsev from Elena’s press kit: “This is a drama for today, told in a modern cinematographic language subjecting the viewer to eternal questions about life and death. A monster disguised as a saint, a repenting sinner facing her idols in a temple — how is that for an image of the Apocalypse? The Devil is powerless when he stands before the face of God. Man is powerless in the face of Death. And God is powerless in the face of Man’s freedom of choice. Humanity holds the key to the future of this trinity.” Now, this critic has always held the view that Russian directors like Tarkovsky, Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky, and Zvyagintsev are deeply religious individuals (having grown up in the traditions of Russian Orthodox Church) and their cinema betrays their theological bent even though traditional images of worship rarely appear on the screen in their cinematic works. In Elena, there is a brief sequence of Elena praying but it is fleeting. At a critical point of the film, the train on which Elena is travelling kills a horse on tracks. A horse killed in an accident might appear insignificant to many. Not so to a Russian filmmaker like Zvyaginstsev who loves to use Tarkovsky-like images of horses one recalls in Solyaris and Andrei Rublyev. For Zvyagintsev and for Tarkovsky, the white horse is a symbol of purity and grace. And the killing of a horse in Elena suggests the fall from grace. The context has to be understood by the viewer. So is the electrical power failure or outage in Elena’s son’s apartment on Elena’s second visit. In Zvyagintsev’s The Return, other Tarkovskian metaphors like the sudden rains were brought into focus.
In Elena, the opening shot is of an apartment viewed from outside, from the perspective of a tree branch. There is a long silence until it is broken by a cry of a bird, a hooded crow (Corvus cornix), if my knowledge of ornithology holds good. The shot of the bird and its cry, are harbingers of the varied metaphors strewn around the film. A crow is never considered a good omen. When the rich man takes out his costly sedan to drive to go to his regular swimming pool, he has to stop his car for a stream of workers who cross the road. Any Zvyagintsev film ought to be enjoyed like solving a crossword puzzle. Every shot is loaded with a silent commentary. The obvious story line of the rich versus the poor is obvious for the less interested viewer. However, Zvyagintsev has presented through Elena his concern for the diminishing ethical, moral and spiritual values in the post-glasnost Russia of today.
Zvyagintsev’s choice of subjects and the writer(s) to build his three films gives an insight into the man. His first film The Return was based on a little known Russian duo, who wrote TV scripts. Collaborating with Zvyagintsev opened up their careers to work later with the talented Nikita Mikhalkov on the Oscar nominated film, 12, loosely based on The Twelve Angry Men. Zvyagintsev moved on to American writer William Saroyan for his next film The Banishment. He used the skills of two other lesser known Russian screenplay writers, Artom Melkumian and Oleg Negin. Between the two writers and Zvyagintsev, Saroyan’s work was transformed into a slightly different tale with so much added punch. He cleverly dropped the Saroyan title of The Laughing Matter and called it by the loaded title The Banishment. Zvyagintsev persisted with Negin on his third film Elena. What Melkumian and Negan did to reshape the Saroyan tale, is accentuated by Negan in Elena, with a host of symbols and metaphors that transport a simple tale of a family into the world of contemporary politics, ethics, social changes and religion. The women characters in all the three Zvyagintsev films are interesting studies: they live to serve men. In Elena, the main female character drives the story-line, even though she lives to serve, first her husband and subsequently her son.
Zvyagintsev’s debut film The Return has all the trappings of the elements that made Andrei Tarkovsky tick and the structured layers of meanings that the film offered were mind-boggling. That debut won him the Golden Lion at Venice film festival and 27 other awards worldwide. His second film The Banishment won the Best Actor prize at Cannes film festival. His third work Elena won him the Jury prize at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, the Grand Prize of the Ghent international film festival and the Silver Peacock for the Best Actress at the Indian International Film Festival, Goa.
These honors themselves indicate that Zvayagintsev is a director who can pick good actors and derive great performances from them. In the first two films, he stuck with actor Konstantin Lavronenko for the main role. He was able to transform an actor with three low profile Russian films into an internationally recognizable actor. For his second film he chose the talented Norwegian/Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie over Russian actresses and lady delivered a smashing low-key performance. In Elena, a TV actress Nadezhda Markina was catapulted into role that won her a Silver Peacock and the best actress award at the Asian Pacific Screen awards.
Zvangintsev’s cinema cannot be appreciated sufficiently if one does not notice his constant cinematographer Mikhail Krichman who went on to win a Golden Ossella at the Venice Film Festival for his cinematography in another remarkable recent Russian work Silent Souls (2010). Krichman’s amazing ability to make nature and the natural surroundings come alive in each frame is remarkable. The combination of Zvyagintsev and Krichman is a gift for viewers, just as director Grigory Kozintsev paired with Jonas Gritsius to give us those magnificent Shakespeare films from Russia, Korol Lir (King Lear) and Gamlet (Hamlet).
Apart from actors and the cameraman of Zvyagintsev’s cinema, viewers have been introduced to three remarkable musicians Andrei Dergatchev in The Return, the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt in The Banishment, and now in Elena the minimalist US composer Philip Glass. In Elena, Philip Glass’ music comes in stark contrast to a diagetic soundtrack, when Elena heads to the nest of her brood. Philip Glass has never been as breathtaking in cinema as he has been in Elena and Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi.
And that is what makes Zvyaginstev’s cinema a rich total experience—great thought-provoking screenplays, superb visuals, arresting performances, delightful music and a direction that leaves you clamoring for more of such films.