Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Alexey Rozin, Elena Lyadova
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Runtime: 109 min.
Verdict: Could very well be one of our modern master’s best film.
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Elena finds Mr. Zvyagintsev in an intensely political frame of mind, and one might feel he isn’t pulling any punches. Punches, those seem to be coming from the extreme right. There are two crucial sequences where he almost goes out of his way to let his point be heard, and provide for a running commentary of sorts. Sequences, that work to “complete” a whole of sorts, like different perspectives in one of them hyperlink films. Around the 30 min. mark is angle-1, and it starts in a basement parking lot serving some luxurious apartments housing the affluent members of the society. Vladimir (Mr. Smirnov), the old rich guy, walks to his car. A primarily narrative/subjective/dramatic intent would’ve probably tracked his movement into the car, and fixated on him while he revved the engine, and either cut as he drove out of the frame, or tracked the car out of sight. Mr. Zvyagintsev instead chooses to layer Vladimir’s subjectivity with his own, thereby making the shot (and the ensuing sequence) morally and politically alive. He tracks Vladimir’s motion, as the old man walks towards his car and unlocks the central locking, all the while moving towards his subject, and just about the moment he “meets” his subject, who is settled in the car, the subject drives. There’s a remarkable almost mathematical precision to it all, the camera’s motion reflecting a similar optimization as that supported by the central locking. The sequence continues further in a fluid tracking shot of the car driving up the parking ramps, the view being from inside, and it feels as if the entire frame is floating. Vladimir turns the car around a corner and one of those automatic gates opens, and the entire sequence seems to be unfolding with the same sort of unobstructed, or rather “unopposed” ease as Henry Hill’s in Goodfellas’ Copacabana. Up until Vladimir finds some workers “crossing” the road seemingly taking their own sweet time. Mr. Zvyagintsev cuts to a shot of Vladimir from outside the vehicle, and here’s a man who seems to have nothing but contempt for this class. He doesn’t dwell on this reaction shot, which otherwise would’ve surrendered the emotion (contempt) completely to the subject (Vladimir), but instead cuts to the workers ambling across the road in a single file, thereby transferring, or rather inspiring that emotion within us. It is one hell of a moment from one of our modern masters, a moment that through its content addresses the motivations in the narrative and that through its aesthetic creates a rather synecdochical representation of history of a country that had its aristocrat stopped in his tracks by the working lot.
The alternate angle comes just about an hour later, in another part of the city. It is one of those matchbox apartments, and considering the presence of three cooling towers in the vicinity, I guess it stands next to a nuclear plant. It concerns a bunch of good-for-nothing teenagers, a caricature of mindless criminal-tending anarchic youth if you ask me, and the fact that I don’t seem to have any problem of any sort with it when any caricature of the opposite kind (the establishment, the rich et al.) would have had my frothing in my mouth is probably a just reflection of the hypocrisy resident in my criticisms. My defense: we need more films that are pro-rich, and that this has come from Russia makes me very happy. Mr. Zvyagintsev’s constructs a social space whose geography reflects the desires and intentions behind any city – that of having the low-class pushed into a ghetto, where the prosperous form the sky-rises and wide roads and lush apartments representing the future, and where the decay is a representation of the past. These matchbox project apartments and the cooling towers are vestiges of the communist era, a city of Others, and the working class living within them is some sort of pest feeding over the prosperous and considering it its right to do so. I have a hunch that is Mr. Zvyagintsev’s view of things, especially considering the way he describes this alternate angle by tracking the teenagers crossing a road through a handheld camera, conveying a rough chaotic world. They hurl abuses at cars that pass by, and I have some special feelings for those who cross the road right in the middle of the traffic not even bothering to run and with that outstretched hand considering it their goddamn right. Elena reflected those feelings. These guys walk into the wastelands surrounding the plant and enter a meaningless brawl that is presented intentionally without any context and thereby becomes a caricature rather than anything specific. They all beat each other up. We don’t even know who is who, what with everybody’s outfit being so similar, and its abstractness inspires no emotion than contempt, especially in the wake of the film’s principal criminal act.
Elena and Elena regularly travel between these two socio-geographic spaces, and judging by the length of Elena’s travel, these two seem to be pretty far away. Irreconcilably far away. That is not Mr. Zvyagintsev’s point though, but merely serves as the backdrop to his narrative. It is one killer of an opening as he reveals not merely new spaces but people and the equation between them. A montage of static shots establishes a luxurious apartment. We meet Elena. She seems to be living there all by herself. Until she opens another room and draws the curtains and wakes up Vladimir. Who is he, we’ve no idea? We wonder why they don’t sleep alone, and if they are relatives. We get the answer much later, by way of implication, of a rather young marriage between two older people, each having their own life. They sleep in different rooms, watch different televisions, have different kids – he a daughter, she her son – and yet there’s nothing apparently strained between them. Every marriage has a different logic, and this one has its own, which we need to find. Mr. Zvyagintsev sets it all up like a chain of clues, set of actions – she waking him up and walking into the kitchen, he walking into the bathroom, she coming back in and neatly setting up the bed, he coming back and getting ready and sitting on the table, and she serving the porridge and coffee. It is smooth and efficient, all working like a well-oiled clock. They talk about their kids, his daughter Katya and her son Sergey. They sit on opposite ends of the table. Elena, more than any of his two films, finds Mr. Zvyagintsev at the peak of his narrative capabilities, and he’s able to build images and sequences that support both associative and historic readings. You got to look at the train sequence later in the film and the Hitchcockian thrills that completely destroy our nerves. The apartment is an apartment, but then again one can easily read it, especially in hindsight, as symbolic of the palace (Kremlin). Vladimir and Elena come from different strata of the society. He has the money, and she provides him with sex and service. She needs some of that money for her son, which he refuses to give out of principle. Each new clue reveals something about the marriage. So much so that when Vladimir is discharged from the hospital we see a nurse set his bed right and open the window and clean the room, with just about the same degree of finesse.
And yet, for all the specificity, Mr. Zvyagintsev’s intentions aren’t ambiguous. More than being pro-rich, he seems to stand against the anti-rich stance. He sets up standalone sequences detailing the uselessness of Sergey and his distinct lack of ethics or principles (little actions like taking money from his mother and hiding it in his pocket and handing over his wife only a portion of it) and yet corresponding complaints from Elena aren’t served with any evidence, her only standalone moment coming far later in the film and in a vastly different context. Still, one might argue that those make for the peripherals. Elena, what do we make of her? She walks into a church to pray, and she has no clue how to go about it. Not that she’s particularly religious either, as she looks through the picture at her reflection within it. It is remarkable how Mr. Zvyagintsev sets up these little daily activities and employs subtle variations in the order of focus-shift, or in behavior to reveal little nuggets of character subjectivity. You have to wonder about a woman who willingly wants to stay with a man and marry him who wouldn’t let her on his bed. Or maybe, you don’t. You don’t really need to wonder about a woman who watches reality shows, who looks at herself just as often, and one who offers different emotions (regarding her grandkids) before the husband and her son. The final sequence only confirms who her real family is, and the moral aloofness of it all. All she wants is the best for her and her kids. That is all she cares about.