Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev Starring Nadezhda Markina, Andrei Smirnov, Yelena Lyadova, Alexey Rozin, Evgenia Konushkina, Igor Ogurtsov, Vasiliy Michkiv Club, IFI, Dublin, 109 min
Is it too soon to name Andrei Zvyagintsev as a Russian master to rank alongside Elem Klimov, Alexander Sokurov and Andrei Tarkovksy? It seems not. Released in 2003, the director’s The Return – winner of The Golden Lion at Venice – spread jarring waves of beautiful gloom about the world’s specialist cinemas.
His follow-up, The Banishment, was less impressive, but it still featured one of contemporary film’s greatest opening shots. Now, he excels himself with a hypnotic fable concerning inequality in Russian society. The picture is both contemporary and timeless. It says a great deal about the Russian state’s embrace of capitalism at its most rapacious. But the picture also exhibits the ancient pessimistic rhythms of a story by Dostoevsky or Gogol. Everything changes and everything stays the same.
We begin with a bravura (though unflashy) opening shot of a leafless tree outside a coldly luxurious Moscow apartment: the focus pulls from tip to resting crow to window. Within the building, we meet a strange couple. Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), the elderly man, is clearly wealthy; Elena (Nadezhda Markina), the middle-aged woman, looks to be from a humble background. We see her make his breakfast and then – to the strains of Philip Glass – travel to a rough, industrial region some distance away. Is she a servant? Is she an unlikely lover?
It gradually emerges that Elena was once Vladimir’s nurse. They are now married, but the relationship still seems poisoned by class and hierarchy. She needs money to stop her layabout son being drafted into the army and resents the fact that Vladimir – whose own daughter has gone slightly off the rails – is proving reluctant to reach into his pocket. The film moves steadily from a sedate study of the mundane to a quietly effective drama of compromised consciences.
There are no heroes in Elena. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, his writer, have turned Moscow into a violent, pockmarked jungle characterised by violence and selfishness. Vladimir is something of a skinflint, but he is not a monstrous oligarch. Elena seems, at first, to be the films ethical core, but her eventual surrender to desperation demonstrates that – in Zvyagintsev’s world, anyway – no such moral avatar can survive life untainted.
It’s very gloomy. It’s very Russian. It’s as powerful as any picture released this season.