The Reel Estate: Meet Andrei Zvyagintsev
BY JOSEPH FAHIM
Cairo: He’s been called the new Tarkovsky, the chronicler of modern-day Russia, the most gifted Russian filmmaker to arrive in a generation. Ever since his astounding debut “The Return” in 2003, Venice Film Fest’s Golden Lion winner Andrei Zvyagintsev has taken the art-film world by storm with his mystical tales of faith, morality and displacement.
His new film, “Elena,” which won the Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize last year at the Cannes Film Fest, is distinctly dissimilar to his past works: An urban drama set in Moscow about a middle-aged woman making life-changing decisions in the wake of her elderly husband’s ailment. Nihilistic in its world-vision, incisive in its criticism of Putin’s Russia and precise in its visual articulation, “Elena” is a masterwork by an assured filmmaker at the top of his game; a moral fable that cleverly and understatedly captures the spirit of the time.
Last year, I met up with Zvyagintsev for a talk about the notion of evolving morality in contemporary Russia, the various social strands of the story and its atypical structure of the film.
All three films Zvyagintsev has directed so far center on families, a coincidence according to him. “Family represents the structure where all important decisions are made,” Zvyagintsev told The Egypt Monocle. “[When starting a movie], I don’t begin with the subject. It’s about the story, so once the story is developed and put on screen only do we realize how it’s related to the subject.”
In more than one way, “Elena” could be considered a social drama dissecting the deep-seated moral malaise of Russian society, and one of the main points it strikes is the large gap between parents and children.
“Russia and other East European countries suffer from degradation in social values, mainly due to feeling of insecurity about the future,” Zvyagintsev said. “That’s why parents don’t invest in their children because they’re never sure what the future will bring. For many people, it’s difficult to take care of themselves, let alone their children. If you compare Russia to other economically affluent societies, people there have more guarantees to their lives, and they enjoy the happiness of being parents and having children. Russia and other Eastern European countries had that in the past, but the reality of today is different.”
All three films of Zvyagintsev represent an exploration of morality, and, to a lesser extent, religion, in contemporary Russia. In “Elena,” the moral laws that govern present Russian society bear no resemblance to the concrete, well-defined ones of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and are more in line with the godless universe of Woody Allen.
“For hundreds and hundreds of years, Russians always believed that the good always wins over the bad, and they still believe in that,” Zvyagintsev said. “Dostoevsky always believed in the idea that the good will always prevail and the bad will always be punished, either by external forces or internally by shame and anguish.
“The 20th Century changed everything. The First World War was the starting point and the Second was a confirmation that this notion is untrue, that it’s a myth; so many bad things happen around us and they go unpunished. The bad, people discovered, wins at the end.
“I actually don’t like the assumption that morals are products of religion; morals are products of the everyday human life. Religion determines its own set of what’s wrong and what’s right. Religion is associated more with traditions than they everyday moralities.
“My co-writer, Oleg Negin, had a problem with the scene when Elena is seen lighting a candle in the church for her husband. We judge people by their actions, and audiences can perhaps judge Elena by seeing her lighting up a candle for someone and form a certain perception about her, but her subsequent actions prove to be more powerful and more indicative of her character. The question of religion, in this context, is beside the point. In other words, you judge a person by their actions and not by their religious beliefs.”
Television plays a prominent role in setting the temperament of Zvyagintsev’s world, of capturing the nuances of the new capitalist Russia. “We realize that the TV is the fifth character of the film,” he said. “It’s a private property; each character has his own TV and each character has his own TV program that defines them. We spent hours assembling footage that correspond to each character and their environments.”
On paper, “Elena” may appear to be a domestic drama of suppressed emotions and unreleased anger. On screen, the film feels like a suspense thriller that remains gripping throughout in spite of its measured pace and the often motionless camera.
“I don’t make an extra effort to create suspense,” Zvyagintsev said. “It’s a temperament born directly in the set. It’s all about whether a certain feeling works at a certain moment or not. I don’t believe in genre cinema which requires specific elements that must be in the film. It’s useful to try new stuff, to experiment, and see if they work or not.
“In detective movies, you always have a structure: an investigation, a police procedural. There’s always a secret, a mystery, but here, everything is clear. You see everything Elena does from beginning to end. You can see the moment she decides to commit a certain action and later when she actually does it. You follow the whole process. So, it’s not a detective story. That’s why people tend to see different things each viewing, reacting differently to certain moments.”
One of “Elena’s” standout feats is Philip Glass’ evocative score that injects the seemingly quiet ambiance with mounting tension that’s always threatening to explode.
“It’s always useful to break the original format,” Zvyagintsev said. “I see the film as family drama, not as a thriller. Nothing at the beginning of the film prepares you for what happens next. Audiences from the get-go may believe that this is a traditional drama about family issues and money. But then this music comes along in the first 15 minutes and it makes you think, this is not what the movie really is.
“When the sound engineer and Glass listened to the first two or three minutes, they said the film sounds like a detective story. I was happy to hear that, because it’s not.” –The Egypt Monocle