ELENA (Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2011, Russia) – Class Warfare

One of the posters to the film.

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev first made an impact on the international film scene with his directorial debut The Return (2003). The Return was well received and took away the main prize at the Venice Film Festival. Being Russian and adopting an elliptical approach, comparisons to Andrei Tarkovky were inevitable but seemingly appropriate given the film’s allegorical qualities. The evasive father in The Return is played stoically by Russian theatre actor Konstantin Lavronenko who would also feature in the lead role in Zvyagintsev’s follow up The Banishment (2007). Although critics were not as unanimous in their praise for The Banishment, the film confirmed Zvyagintsev’s impressive visual mastery of framing and composition. Additionally, The Banishment extended Zvyagintsev’s interests in family and communication as key thematic preoccupations. The Banishment is a film that would sit comfortably with Turkish director Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s pictorial Once Upon a time in Anatolia – both films are obsessive about documenting landscapes. Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena departs from The Return and The Banishment in one significant way; by setting events firmly in contemporary Moscow society. In a way, Elena signals a shift away from the mythical rural to a more familiar urban concern with current social and political issues that take into account the on going economic crisis and the accelerated creation of a powerless underclass. By switching his gaze to the class divide, Elena is clearly Zvyagintsev’s most prescient film and he does so without compromising his meditative camera style. Whereas The Return and The Banishment deconstruct the patriarch, Zvyagintsev’s latest film Elena makes a woman in her late 50s the focus of the narrative. Elena has been married to Vladimir for ten years. They have both been married before and their relationship is built on needs rather than love. It soon becomes apparent from her habitual routine of looking after the house and caring for her husband that Elena is nothing more than a glorified housemaid. The apartment in which they live is a shiny postmodern space that wouldn’t look out of place in an IKEA catalogue spread. At first it appears Elena is alone except for Vladimir but her journey to the inner city ghetto of Moscow shows us her unemployed son lives with his wife and two children in a cramped apartment. Elena supports them financially and we discover that her grandson needs money so he can go to college and potentially achieve some level of social mobility. 

When Vladimir has a stroke, he not only refuses Elena’s repeated pleas to help her son but begins to make out a will which effectively sidelines Elena and empowers his estranged daughter from his first marriage. Although it is not made explicitly clear whether or not Elena genuinely loves Vladimir, she realises that having given ten years of her life to effectively look after Vladimir, she cannot simply allow the daughter to inherit everything. Vladimir’s objections to offer financial support for Elena’s son stems from a class snobbery that is vindictive, cruel and representative of the way in which the rich will do anything to protect and preserve the status quo. Elena’s decision to accelerate the death of Vladimir not only ensures her of a share of the inheritance but transforms her into a radical political entity. Elena’s heinous actions might be cataclysmic in terms of morality but Zvyagintsev’s ending in which we find Elena and her son’s family occupying the apartment as their own suggests that murder can also be a strangely revolutionary act because in this case it brings with it the promise and perhaps even fulfilment of social mobility. Why social mobility? Mainly because it was the defining characteristic of a functioning capitalist society in which class could be attained if someone worked hard enough. Social mobility has been erased today, replaced by an inexplicable economic divide that has produced an antagonistic class conflict in which a tiny elitist minority reigns supreme while the underclass continues to grow unhealthily into yet another social problem as touted by the mainstream media. If this is true then why does Zvyagintsev opt to depict the underclass in the film as equally unsympathetic as the rich? Upon occupying the apartment, Zvyagintsev trains his camera on the reaction of Elena’s apathetic son who reiterates his zombified position of the fixated armchair television spectator, underlining social mobility as an aspiration has now been taken over by the numbing diversions of a one dimensional media circus. With Elena, director Andrei Zvyagintsev certainly demonstrates he has considerable range and is not afraid of remaining apolitical. In my opinion, Zvyagintsev is one of the best filmmakers at work today in the world. If you don’t believe me, just watch any of his films; they are mesmerising.

One thought on “ELENA (Dir. Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2011, Russia) – Class Warfare

  1. I'm not so sure he remains apolitical. Did you notice those happy workermen crossing the street and, later in the film, playing football? I think they are the key, in Zvyagintsev's mind, to the social nightmare he depicts…


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