Blog Post

Russia's Two Souls: Andrei Zvyagintsev's Film "Elena" (2011)

Awarded the Jury’s Special Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” is a powerful cinematic fete, as distinct and subtle as his 2003 prize-winning “The Return,” but one whose story carries a greater resonance and depth.

A small masterpiece, it will be appreciated by a thinking audience, one that prefers, on occasion, a bit of a work-out for the little grey cells, rather than have their eyeballs massaged by purveyors of visual candy. Like raw oysters, or Anton Chelhov’s “comedies,” and unlike the Big Mac, Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” calls for an acquired taste, and those who have it will come away feeling satisfied and rewarded.

On the surface, it is a typical human interest story about a conflict between a middle-aged couple, each on his and her second round, who disagree on ways to provide for their children. As in Chekhov, most of the elements of the story are eminently portable and could located in any modern society, and yet, as in Chekhov, they are all eminently Russian, and their particular coordinates of time and space are Russia today.

Zvyagintsev chose to make his film visually spare, muting its color palette to that of the arid late fall in the European North, and shooting most of the film with a stationary camera, partial to the split focus effect. The overall ambience can best be described as a cross between a subtle Japanese water color and a glossy catalogue photo of a sterile Scandinavian furniture show room. There is a sound track to match. The opening scene in an upscale condo occurs in a sonic vacuum, punctuated by discrete quotidian noises of the morning rituals soon to be drowned in the chilling cheer of morning TV. Before long, this infernal auditory néant morphs into an itch-inducing, quiet-desperation score by Philip Glass. It is not so much against this minimalist buzz, as along with it, that Zvyagintsev unfolds before us his sophisticated moral—and sociological—picture puzzle.

What are the pieces? A good-looking, if a bit heavy-set, tall Russian woman Elena, in her fifties, a former medical nurse, now married to her ex-patient, a vigorous and apparently successful older businessman, Vladimir. Well-dressed, if conservatively and a bit on the matronly side, she emanates the aura of a fading Russian beauty: slow and glacial exterior belying, one imagines, the incendiary mix on the inside waiting for a spark. Her husband cuts a figure of a commanding stature: a self-made, no-nonsense top executive, with a taste for Danish furniture design, German motors, membership in a top-notch health club, a roving eye, and a medical cabinet well-stocked with Viagra.

Both have children from their previous lives. Elena has a no-good son Seryozha, who likes to spit from the high-rise balcony of his non-descript outer suburb housing project, a good-of-nothing high-school senior grandson, who looks up to the “hood’s” petty criminals, another one-year-old to follow in his bother’s footsteps, and yet another on the way in the fertile belly of her daughter-in-law, a woman in her own image: pragmatic, indulgent, down-to-earth and, as it turns out, with few moral scruples.

Vladimir’s daughter Katya, too, is no good. A thoroughly urban, upper-middle-class young woman, she arrives on the scene casually well-dressed and attractive, if a bit fatigued by her strict regimen of “food, sex, and drugs and alcohol only on weekends.” Like Seryozha, who lives off his mother’s pension and other hand-outs, Katya is not gainfully employed, but her indolence, we are led to understand, is the result of self-reflection and moral disgust with the emptiness of her world whereas Seryozha’s is habitual, non-reflective, even vegetative kind of idleness—the torpor of a creature with minimal social skills who cannot exist without his beer-bottle pacifier in his mouth.

Zvyagintsev could not have drawn a starker class line than the one between Vladimir and Elena: one the one side are the cosmopolitan, sophisticated father and daughter, on the other, the Russian meshchanstvo (petty bourgeoisie), a kind of lumpen bourgeoisie, the blue- or white-color milieu, intensely materialistic and, despite the urban setting, still rooted in the traditional rural culture, with its unquestioned patriarchy, focus on fertility, and limited horizons. Indeed the “intrigue” of the plot revolves precisely around the difference in what economists and sociologists call time horizons of the husband and wife.

Vladimir’s world implies planning ahead and awareness of the cause-and-effect relationship between actions and consequences. Elena’s is the chaotic world in which needs and dangers—as in the case of the military draft for which every Russian eighteen-year-old is eligible—emerge unexpectedly and must be impulsively met and satisfied. Those who wish to avoid or delay the draft can do so by entering an institution of higher learning—either based on their transcript and exams, which requires a long time-horizon, discipline and planning, or a miracle in the form of a lump sum, sufficiently rounded, to underwrite a bribe. Where a peasant fearing drought would pray to a patron saint of rain, his latter-day urban descendant, a Seryozha or Elena, scheme for a one-time subsidy from the well-provisioned Vladimir.

Without giving away the story, the film ends with Elena’s family moving into Vladimir’s up-market spacious condo and planning to subdivide it in the same manner that the stately apartments of yore were converted into communal warrens of the Soviet era. The film’s parting shot through the window of the condo replicates the opening shot, amplifying the circular time of the film: “And the wind returneth to its circuits.” The “communal apartment” mentality, perhaps going back to the famous Russian peasant commune, mir, reasserts itself, whether under “socialism” or Russia’s twenty-first century oil-driven “capitalism.” What may otherwise bee seen as a human-interest story begins to resonate as an allegorical tale with particular sociological implications: the deep structure of the Russian tradition turns out to be more powerful than any new-fangled modernities, be they communism or capitalism.

As if to emphasize the allegorical turn of the film narrative, Zvyagintsev sets the film in “Any Metropilis” (anyplace vs. the utopian noplace) of today’s Russia, one with a leafy neighborhood for million-dollar condominiums and the infinite urban sprawl of the housing projects for the less fortunate Russians whose outer reaches require travel by rail. All topographical details that might determine the particular setting have been excised. Zvyagintsev is laying a claim to a myth which can serve as a template for any region of his country. With its pieces fit into place the picture puzzle becomes an allegory, one with a considerable historical depth.

In Russia, to unpack Zvyagintsev’s allegory, the great reforms, whether of Peter the Great, Catherine, Alexander I, Lenin, Stalin, Gorbachev or Yeltsin, sooner or later run out of steam, and the traditional, semi-rural culture of Russia absorbs and swallow up, like a predatory plant or a swamp, whatever “foreign” agency has once disturbed its surface. Elena stands for the traditional, semi-rural, semi-urban Russia—her taste for kerchiefs and scheming (khitrost) are the tell-tale signs of her peasant wiles. This is the fate that awaits the film’s protagonist Vladimir and his restless off-spring Katya. The victory is Elena’s and her son’s.

With the puzzle complete, the film’s pedigree in Russian literature and its discourse on Russian culture and history becomes more obvious. The film echoes Denis Fonvizin’s comedy The Minor (1798), in which the mother’s protective love for her son and her inability to enforce discipline destroys his career prospects, to Goncharov’s novel Oblomov (1859) in which the Westernized Russian protagonist ultimately regresses into the embrace of an indulgent “Elena,” to Isaac Babel’s “Tale About a Peasant Wench” (1917) in which the ever-fertile peasant whore Arina smothers the angel Alfredik who had been sent to redeem her.

A hundred years ago, as Russia entered WI, Maxim Gorky elaborated this view of Russian history in his controversial essay “Two Souls” (1915). Now the film maker Zvyagintsev challenges our understanding of today’s Russian by reviving Gorky’s sharp critique. By choosing to call his film “Elena,” not “Vladimir,” Zvyagintsev suggests which one of Russia’s “two souls” is now in the ascendant.

Professor Emeritus, Stanford University
Gregory Freidin has written and taught extensively on Russian culture, literature, politics and society. His long-standing project on the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel includes a series of essays, the Norton Critical Edition of Babel's writings, letters, reminiscences and critical reception Isaac Babel's Selected Writings, W.W. Norton, 2009); a collection of essays on Babel's works and days, The Enigma of Isaac Babel, Stanford UP, 2009); his own critical biography of the writer, A Jew on Horseback: The Worlds of Isaac Babel, is forthcoming.  Freidin’s first critical biography, Coat of Many Colors (1987), a study of the life and oeuvre of the poet Osip Mandelstam, was reissued in paperback in 2010.  In 2004, Freidin organized an International Isaac Babel Conference and Workshop at Stanford, producing the U.S. premiere of Isaac Babel's play "Maria" (directed by Carl Weber) and curating an exhibition on Babel at the Hoover Libraries and Archives. These Babel-related events have received a permanent lease on life in “Babel in California,” by Elif Batuman, the events’ participant observer, who opens with it her critically acclaimed collection Possessed (FSG, 2010). Freidin's interest in contemporary Russian politics and culture found its venue in the US and Russian Press, as well as in the major conference held at Stanford University in 1998 - Russia at the End of the Twentieth Century - that brought together scholars, journalists, editors, and government officials from Russia and the US, including the Undersecretary of State Strobe Talbott, with who he translated the second volume of Nikita Khrushchev's memoirs Khrushchev Remembers: The Last Testament (1974). The First Russian edition of The Federalist Papers came out in Freidin's translation and with his introduction in 1990. Freidin grew up in Moscow and emigrated to the US in 1971. He attended Brandeis University in 1972 and University of California at Berkeley in 1972-78 (M.A. and Ph.D.). Freidin career at Sanford spans 1985-2014. Professor Emeritus, he now resides in Berkeley, California, where he continues his writings and research. A contributor to Arcade, Freidin maintains a personal blog on culture and politics The Noise of Time.