Elena is married to Vladimir, her former patient, a wealthy Russian businessman. They both have children from previous marriages: Elena a lazy, slovenly son, and Vladimir a wayward, estranged daughter. Elena financially supports her unemployed son and his family, sometimes secretly with Vladimir’s money. Vladimir suffers a heart attack at the same time as Elena’s grandson needs Vladimir’s help to avoid serving the compulsory military service. Vladimir refuses his support, and declares to Elena that his daughter will be his only heiress. Backed into a corner, Elena unwillingly comes up with the solution that would solve her son’s family’s predicament: murder Vladimir and inherit half of his wealth.
Elena is the third feature directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev, and the third film on which he worked with the director of photography Mikhail Krichman. Collaboration between these two filmmakers is, according to Zvyagintsev himself, of crucial importance for the way in which the shots are structured, and for the final outcome facing the viewer.1 In film history there are a significant number of important films which were made in such collaboration, and we need to bear this in mind when discussing Zvyagintsev’s films.
Their first two films, The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2004) and Banishment (Izgnanie, 2007), stirred a lot of excitement when they appeared. In particular, The Return caused a stir among critics at the festival in Venice, where it received the Golden Lion. These two films are alike in many ways, the relation between the beautiful image and ambiguous narrative works along similar lines, harking back to Antonioni, one of Zvyagintsev’s heroes. The tribute paid to Tarkovsky was so evident that many saw Zvyagintsev as the heir to the famed director, and called him the most significant figure to appear in Russian cinema since Tarkovsky.2 These films have resisted precise interpretation, while creating a rich associational field of not clearly defined messages. The audience was attracted to the visual power of individual shots, and saw the allusions to the Old and New Testaments as the films’ decisive advantages.
When Elena appeared the obvious innovations struck the observers. With their cryptic structures, The Return and Banishment left room for flights of critical imagination, while Elena was more clearly structured, following a seemingly simple and easily understandable plot. The image was still impressively well designed, although lush exteriors have given way to urban settings, mostly interiors. The explanatory coherence was almost completely fulfilled, and individual events were not left unexplained or enigmatic. Elena has a balanced structure and can be described as a seemingly perfect film of a moral dilemma.
The main character, Elena, is torn between two characters who cannot get along. On one side is her husband, a rich Russian businessman, and, on the other, her lazy and poor son Sergey and his family. Their abodes clearly define their social positions: Elena and her husband reside in an exquisite apartment in a posh part of Moscow, while the son’s family lives in a communal building in one of the poor suburbs. The luxurious apartment is the setting for most of the film, and plays a very important role. For Zvyagintsev the link between the characters and their setting is always essential, and it is here as well. The apartment is furnished in a minimalistic fashion, which enables Zvyagintsev and Krichman to capture the freedom with which characters move around, as well as to compose the shots which impress with their clear, easily apprehended layout of the objects they comprise, contrary to the crammed, claustrophobic shots of Elena’s son’s apartment. Judging by this, it is certainly worthwhile for Sergey’s family to strive for change; at the end of the film they move into Vladimir’s place. What they make out of it is a different matter.
Elena tries to make both sides happy. She takes her pension and regularly hands it over to her son, while at the same time she defends Vladimir and his reluctance to financially help Sergey. This strategy seems to work until Sasha, Sergey’s son, grows old enough to serve in Russia’s compulsory military. Sasha’s parents are worried because of the army’s poor reputation and want to avoid his departure. One way to do so is to enrol Sasha in college, but they need money to do so. And they can get enough money only from Vladimir. Here the plot thickens, and Elena must sail the rough waters to solve this problem. Incidentally, Vladimir has a heart attack just when the money is needed, making him totally dependent on Elena’s help and care. Elena talks to Vladimir’s estranged daughter, Katrina, asking her to visit her ill father in the hospital. Surprisingly, father and daughter make amends, and Vladimir decides to leave practically all his wealth to his daughter, probably and rightly afraid that Elena would use his money to support the lazy habits of her son and his equally unimpressive family. Elena sees that she will not be able to help her grandson, and she decides to kill Vladimir by giving him an extra strong dose of Viagra.
From the beginning, the path for the viewer is to identify with Elena’s predicament. She, like a proper mother and wife, tries to reconcile opposing ends. When she discusses problems with Vladimir, she defends Sergey, and when Sergey verbally attacks Vladimir, she defends him. She even tells Sergey that ‘there is truth in his [Vladimir’s] words’. When the decisive moments come, the viewer has to decide between motherly love, loyalty to the husband and society’s moral code. It is necessary and obvious that Elena is on edge. When Vladimir tells her about his future will, she is irritated, of course, but what interests her is Vladimir’s decision about money for Sasha. Does it mean that she would not kill Vladimir were he to provide for Sasha’s safe future? It seems so. Thus Vladimir signs his own death warrant by being relentlessly hostile to Elena’s family. She seems compulsorily drawn to immediate danger, to Sasha, rather than driven by an elaborate plan from the very beginning of her marriage to Vladimir, as Katya tells her she is. After Vladimir’s heart attack she goes to church to genuinely pray for his well-being, but she is also able to coldly lie about the money in the safe when Katya asks her about it at the meeting with Vladimir’s lawyer. So, the moral dilemma persists from the beginning of the film all the way to the end. But, we can rightly ask, is this what Zvyagintsev really wanted us to think? In one of his interviews he claims that he wanted to portray conundrums and difficult moral choices that contemporary Russian society forces upon its members.3
The BBC has concluded that this film goes against the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky who saw ordinary members of Russian society as the basis of morality, incapable of evil.4 If we agree that Elena’s decision is premeditated evil, then not much of a dilemma is present. In this case, what we see is a matter-of-fact report about a murder, in which the victim and the culprit are clearly identified. But it is not so. As we have seen, Elena goes through real emotional turmoil, and we see that the family finally takes precedence in this carefully balanced plot. Her decision clearly breaks the moral rules on which society is based, but there seems to be enough room for sympathy for her and her behaviour. One of the last images is a high-angle shot of Elena’s little grandchild sleeping and waking up on Vladimir’s bed. The change has been completed: new life has taken the place of an old one. The force of nature overrules the laws of society with the help of some of society’s seemingly most loyal agents.
Such a view of Elena is enabled by a complex relation between the space of a shot and the narrative woven by the viewer. We have already mentioned the importance of setting and characters. This is only one aspect of the mutual relationship of objects in the film. The main details are not immediately clearly outlined for the viewer; rather, they all seem to be placed at an equidistance from the camera and from the narrative. This creates temporary ambiguity which allows the viewer more autonomy in creating the story. She is led to a prolonged process of judgement, which allows her to feel that she has well understood Elena’s dilemma. Thus, the narrative process is varied and well developed on the level of the shots, which, at first sight, serve more descriptive rather than narrative purposes. Sound also plays a very important role in this. In such a loose structure it leads the viewer’s attention across the images and off-screen; and enmeshed with visual cues it brings the viewer to certain conclusions about the story. We often hear sounds from TV sets without seeing the image. While Vladimir watches sports, Elena is interested in talk shows. It underlines his competitiveness and her domesticity.
Despite the plot’s seeming simplicity, the shots are not easily interpreted. Zvyagintsev uses long takes in this film, as he did in previous ones. Repeatedly, some takes last longer than necessary for the viewer to apprehend spatial parameters, objects, their initial interrelationships, as well as their narrative importance. That is why they cause difficulties in interpretation. We may ask: What is it that the director tries to say? Why are these takes so long? And on a theoretical level, what is it that causes boredom in some viewers, while others feel an intensified presence of reality? This is an old question in film theory, which goes back at least as far as Italian Neorealism. One answer is that strength of attention matters. The great majority of contemporary viewers are accustomed to quick cutting, one scan of the situation, then we move to something else, and then perhaps we return to the initial setting, but again in a short take. When the takes get longer, our attention tends to weaken, which leads to boredom. Zvyagintsev repeatedly tests the viewers regarding this matter. It seems that in his long takes not much happens, but, especially as the plot develops, he allows the viewers to infuse the shot with more complex meaning than short, clear takes would allow. Often, very small changes allow for new interpretations of a situation. This has two consequences. On one hand, there is an intense feeling of the solidity of objects, their autonomy in relation to the viewer and in relation to the narrative. On the other, there is also the impression of the richness of the text, of the complexity of its meaning. Of course, none of this would be the case if the narrative were to be weak and non-engaging, if it did not allow the viewer to employ this (newly) found potential of objects.
Meaning and rhythm in cinema are closely connected. Sometimes this has been perceived as the closeness of cinema and music. But here, the rhythm of the film stands opposed to the rhythm of the viewer’s mental processes. In other words, in order to achieve a certain meaning, the film has to agree with the viewer’s abilities to rhythmically perceive the same. If the rhythmic component falls flat, the meaning may not be fully apprehended, and the message fails, communication has not been fully established. Philip Glass’s music infuses this carefully paced film with tension as well as rhythm that reminds us of Hitchcock’s use of Bernard Herrmann’s music.
1. Interview with Zvyagintsev, Serbian Television, Friday, 18 May 2012, 10:30 pm.
2. Available at: http://observer.com/2004/02/ oedipal-drama-russian-style-zvyagintsevs-thereturn.
3. Available at www.1tv.ru/sprojects_edition/ si5756/fi9186.
4. Available at www.1tv.ru/sprojects_edition/ si5756/fi9186.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Russia. Production Company: Non-stop Productions. Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev. Producer: Aleksandr Rodnyanskiy. Screenwriters: Oleg Negin, Andrei Zvyagintsev. Cinematographer: Mikhail Krichman. Pre-existing music: Philip Glass. Editor: Anna Mass. Cast: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrei Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katerina), Aleksei Rozin (Sergey), Evgeniya Konushkina (Tatyana), Igor Ogurtsov (Aleksandr).]
Birgit Beumers, (ed.), Russia on Reels: The Russian Idea in Post-Soviet Cinema, London, I. B. Tauris, 1999.
Birgit Beumers, (ed.), The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, London, Wallflower Press, 2007.
Nancy Condee, The Imperial Trace: Recent Russian Cinema, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2009. http://az-film.com/en/Publications/?type=2& movie = 6& p = 1. http://depesha.com/arts/andrey-zvyagintsevs-elena. http://kinoart.ru/journal/elena.html.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.