Feb. 27, 2013 - Issue #906: Tegan and Sara - Pop goes their world
A filmmaker’s return
Andrey Zvyagintsev makes good on his debut's promise with Elena
Then the director slipped under the radar with his too-cryptic and over-long (for many critics) adaptation of a William Saroyan novel, The Banishment (2007). The melancholy, poetic (Joseph Brodsky's noted and W.H. Auden's quoted), eight-minute Apocrypha, a film-within-a-film rumination on the digital-video era, proved a lovely bonus on the DVD/Blu-ray of the anthology New York, I Love You (2009).
But Zvyagintsev truly returned with Elena, from a screenplay by Oleg Negin. A frosty Moscow noir—again shot by eagle-eyed Mikhail Krichman—that picked up a Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Festival, Elena was released on disc by Zeitgeist late last year, months after its onscreen release in the UK and US to stellar reviews.
The film begins with a flicker of fairy-tale—a web of bare branches; the cawing of crows—but the cool, glass-bound, capitalism-era Moscow apartment visible through the trees slowly becomes the site of urban noir. At first, it's a place of hermetically sealed routine, where middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina)—not your typical femme fatale—gets up each day, draws back the curtains, then awakes her older husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). But Elena, an ex-nurse who met Vladimir when he was a patient, will soon feel forced to chillingly alter that routine, ever so slightly, after he makes a fateful decision.
The space that pushes Elena to do what she does is far away—a cramped little apartment in a grey block of a Khrushchev-era building on the city's scrubland outskirts. This dingy little world is shockingly, starkly different from the glassed-off city sanctum. Here, her son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family live; Elena asks Vladimir for the money for Sergey to buy his slacking son's way into a university, thus avoiding the army. But, after suffering a health-scare, Vladimir draws a little closer to his estranged, diffident daughter. (Near the end, Zvyagintsev sucks us deeper into these class-divides and generation-gaps when he follows Elena's grandson out to some scrubland with his friends—where his waywardness becomes feral.)
Krichman lends his coldly, carefully drifting eye, curiously poetic in its eerie, gliding gaze. This expectant, tracking look, along with the story's steady snowball to Elena's act, leads us along an ominous way where whatever could go wrong, doesn't. A life's ended, but the days go callously on; pain is silently expressed or endured. That anti-moral makes this noir such a cutting, almost blackly humorous, Chekhov-like short story about the beaten paths and icy ruts of Russian life in the capital, post-Communism. (It's an everydayness unrelieved by the shooter video-games, tacky game shows, political-pundit panels and magazine sellers glimpsed in the background.)
In the disc's director-interview extra, Zvyagintsev reveals his extensive consideration of the story: its anti-fairy-tale sense of evil triumphing; a scene's indebtedness to Dostoyevsky; pushing past the original ending; the rhythmic movements between living (and dying) spaces; the implied criticism of a Russia where "patriarchal ideas [still] prevail." And he notes that the apartment was built; it seems appropriate that this glassed-off space was itself nesting-dolled within a studio. In a land of schemers, Zvyagintsev and Negin suggest, the urban cloisters of Moscow's elite are as self-sealing as the lowly masses' Communist-era flats are claustrophobic and stifling; but ultimately, in Elena, Russia's inward-looking, me-first capitalist future can't shut out its grasping, survivalist, Soviet past. V
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