Film poster for “Elena”, 2011, directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev | Zeitgeist Films
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It was three years ago when I saw a film by Andrei Zvyagintsev for the first time. It was Loveless and it turned out to be my favourite film of that year. If I were to describe the film in a few words, I would call it the tragedy of modern life. Yes, there is a tragedy occurring in the story, but the film also speaks volumes about the many social ills of our modern world, about the superficiality and nothingness of a world with an unending aspirational demand for status, money, and the social media prerogative of selfies and self-affirmation. Because this film is not just a pitiless critique on Russia, the way many American and Western reviewers rushed to describe it. It is rather, sadly, the story of us all, a loveless world, a hollow society that has lost sight of what is truly important, incapable of supporting human life, or a child’s love.
Visually speaking, the first thing that I was made aware of was that the film had a “style”. “Here is another director with a distinguished filming style,” I thought. As in Hitchcock. The cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, who has worked with Zvyagintsev on all his feature films from the very beginning (“He found my eyes, my co-author,” the filmmaker said about Krichman in an interview for IndieWire after the film’s premiere), said he wanted to give Loveless a documentary style with realistic, natural lighting: “We wanted to make it as real as possible… That was Andrey’s idea.” The natural light pours in beautifully through the windows that are frequently used in the film, another element that caught my attention. And yet inside the colour palette is dark and steely, everything seems void of life. The windows (the screen of the phone, too, or the lonely waters in the woods on which the camera lingers) seem like portals into another world, a stale, lifeless world, one that unfortunately happens on this earth.
Last night I watched Elena (and the night before, The Return), made 6 years before Loveless, and I realised it already had the maturity of style, the impeccable stylistic control shown in Loveless, and the same realistic and contemporary feel. That striking contrast between the natural light and the dark underlay of the story is also present and it even taps into noir, but the narrative is so disquieting and subtly gripping, further enhanced by the beautiful original score by Philip Glass, with the shocking element that occurs so seamlessly entwined into the pensive minimalism of the film. There is a painterly quality to both films and Krichman confirmed that he often puts the actors in front of windows because “I like silhouettes. I like details behind windows.” The windows play the role of painting frames, and Andrei Zvyagintsev shows framed portraits of his characters. It is the window into his world, an intimate but skillfully created nonetheless world and which is all the more striking as it feels surreptitious while still rooted in the reality of our days, an unforgiving portrayal of a world where money, not the way you make it, is the only prerogative, a world deeply defined by existential unease and spiritual alienation.
Elena starts with a long shot of the branches outside the windows of the apartment where Elena, whose actions trigger the plot of the film, lives with her husband. Elena, played by Nadezhda Markina, is a former nurse from a poor background and the dutiful wife of Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a wealthy business man, who married her after she tended to him in hospital some years ago. The film ends with the same stylisation of stillness, the shot of the branches outside the luxurious apartment (its dark colour scheme and engineered good taste will be found again in Loveless), only the scene happening inside is different now. Elena is the only link between past and present. “When you look straight in her face, you see a simple, down-to-earth, working, typically Russian woman. But if you see her sideways — and I do, in the movie, show her in profile a lot — she looks like royalty,” the director explained his choice for his leading lady. “She looks aristocratic. And this duality intrigued me.” Her face may seem familiar at first glance, but there is a mysterious quality to Elena that makes you keep asking yourself: Who is she? Those windows she keeps coming in front of invite to reflection, but no warmth or spontaneous gaiety breaks in. They only glimpse into a dark thread.
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