Cinephiles, unite! The name Andrey Zvyagintsev is relatively unknown on these shores, as his remarkable debut “The Return” quietly came and went (though it is now on Netflix Instant — GO!) and his tremendous sophomore effort “The Banishment” never saw a proper release in the West. That’s all about to change with “Elena,” his third and most refined piece of work, which not only saw a premiere at Cannes Film Festival but also left with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. Zvyagintsev’s aesthetic might make him seem like Andrey Tarkovsky II, but his voice is still his own, eschewing his mentor’s liberal use of magic for more grounded, realistic stories.
Set in contemporary Russia, the film follows the titular character (Nadezhda Markina) as she cares for her wealthy second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in a gigantic penthouse apartment, in a high-class area of the country. By contrast, Elena’s jobless son Sergey dwells in a lower-income section with his family, faced with the dilemma of whether to have his son Sasha join the military because they can’t afford school. It’s up to grandma to sort things out, but unfortunately, Vladimir refuses to cough up a single penny, citing Elena’s son as lazy and irresponsible. Why should he continue to support him? He’s got a point, but his wife must also think about the welfare of her blood — which leads to some drastic measures.
It’s a premise ripe for a thriller, but Zvyagintsev’s film is subtle, slow, and quiet, using a genre-esque story to instead explore the notion of family, and the inherent conflict between class divisions. In promotion for “Elena,” we had the pleasure of chatting with the filmmaker about the changes made to the original script, his favorite directors, and his excision from the rather shoddy “New York, I Love You.” “Elena” opens in New York today and you can watch the trailer here.
Once Was An Apocalypse
Originally, “Elena” was born as a US-production, focusing on characters dealing with the apocalypse. That eventually fell through and the project was relocated to Russia, with Zvyagintsev and screenwriter Oleg Negin excising any actual reference to the end of the world, but retaining the main characters and relationships. Still, there’s a grim, hopeless coat that remains on the film. “When it comes to humanity, human beings, the essence of human beings, there’s definitely an apocalyptic tone — reevaluating your values, your spiritual values,” commenting on the build-up to Elena’s ultimate decision to deal with her husband and the soul-searching she embarks upon afterwards: “Kind of an entropy, the state of entropy.”
He Loves Match Point
Well, maybe. Here he runs down a list of a few filmmakers he enjoys and how he likes to see their movies: “I like to watch a story I know nothing about. I choose the director that I see. Coen Brothers, P.T. Anderson, Woody Allen. I’m not going to read about the movie or see trailers, I want to preserve the intimacy between the movie and myself.” Apparently, he’s as juiced for “The Master” as we all are.
The Ending (Spoilers)
Every second of “Elena” feels masterly, but not to the point of feeling too nailed down — Zvyagintsev keeps things loose by sometimes digressing from the main protagonist, the most notable detour being a tracking shot that follows Sasha as he engages in a neighborhood brawl. It’s a terrific, suspenseful sequence — not to mention nerve-wracking, considering its slow build and potential consequences (Sasha, for example, has a knife). When asking about these tendencies to branch off, this writer opened up a huge can of worms — apparently the entire scene and ending were created well into production, changing the climax entirely:
“I’d say there are three layers of the story, the three generations. There’s the first (Elena and her husband Vladimir), the second (Elena’s son Sergey and Vladimir’s daughter Katya), and the last generation being Sasha, the grandson, and his friends. The third generation was lacking the depth that the others had, so that’s where this idea came from,” the filmmaker explained. “This and the next episode when Elena and her family move into Vladimir’s apartment was all new, written almost near the end of production. We found that location Sasha goes to, with the apple garden, the industrial pipes, the uncultured piece of land next to the building… it became clear that they had to go in and something had to happen. That’s where I got the idea that there would be a fight. It predicts the possible future of this kid and reflects what he’s all about, what he lives by, what’s on his mind.” Considering Elena committed a pretty heinous act to get this boy into school, his future doesn’t look so promising. In a way, the director considers this her punishment — she gets her way, but will things really play out in her favor?
But what was the original ending? Apparently, it was to end right before we follow Sasha to the rumble, while everyone is still in Sergey’s apartment and dealing with a brief blackout. “Initially the movie was supposed to finish in the hallway when the lights were off. One of the characters is outside checking the fuses, the light goes back on, and that would be the end. I don’t know if you have this in America, but in Russia, the fuse boxes have discs that tell you how much electricity the apartments on the floor are using,” he described. “So the last shot would be that disc that keeps rotating, accumulating the electricity, and the camera would slowly zoom in on that disc… that was to be the end.” Quite a powerful closing image, and given the filmmaker’s interest in sound design, we’re sure he could somehow make an electricity monitor seem unnerving. That said, the finale that he came up with last minute is just as powerful, and provides enough closure to be satisfying in a way that the original wouldn’t have been.
Exiled From “New York, I Love You”
We generally operate with caution in regards to the recent onslaught of omnibus films — more often than not, they’re wildly uneven by nature, with gems few and far between. However, interest piqued when a filmmaker as interesting as Zvyagintsev was set to contribute to “New York, I Love You” — but then our curiosity was immediately squashed when it was announced that both his and Scarlett Johansson‘s contributions would be cut from the feature. Their reasoning? His effort “Apocrypha” was too art-house… but our question is, what did they really expect from him? “I was disappointed that it was cut, but when I saw the movie I realized that it just didn’t match. Organically, it just didn’t belong. It was a decision of a focus group but it made sense,” he stated, showing no bad blood. He did, however, have a few criticisms of his own, but was very careful not to come off as bitter or mean-spirited: “The shorts had different directors and cinematographers, and I don’t want to offend anybody, but I had the impression that all of the cinematographers were the same for every short. They all looked and felt similar. The camera moves around, it’s dynamic, but in our episode, everything was very static, observing.” He throws up his arms, though, again recognizing that his film short stuck out like a sore thumb: “The movie was meant for entertainment, but my episode wasn’t entertaining, at least not in a traditional sense.”
Details are slim, but the smallest progression towards a new film is something worth noting. “Yesterday I had an important meeting with my producer Alexander Rodnyansky and we decided to embark on a new project. We didn’t start working on it yet, but a decision has been made. It would be very modern and take place in Russia.” When pressed for more, the director remained cagey, but did let some more slip. “It’s inspired by a story that happened here in America. We’re translating it into our Russia reality, to a small provincial town and will try to act it out.” Casey Anthony? Linsanity? Only time will tell.