Nobody does nihilism better than the Russians. From Gogol and Dostoevsky to a recent spate of film-festival grenades, Russian storytellers seem to be like tennis-icons John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors: at the top of their game when extremely pissed off.
Filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose new film Elena premiers today in New York, is no exception to this tradition of using anger as gatorade. Elena, which won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, studies the impossible obligations felt by its middle-aged everywoman (played with subtle restraint by Nadezhda Markinaas). Married-up late in life, stoic and purse-lipped Elena must now shuttle between playing the role of attentive nurse and wife to an aging tycoon and caring mother to a son and his layabout family on the other side of Moscow’s tracks. Beneath its artfully composed tracking shots (think Tarkovsky, with a dash of Haneke) and Markinaas’s perpetual face of angelic worry, there’s an underlying rage here as loud and cacophonous as The Sex Pistols singing “God Save the Queen”.
A sucker for cinematic punk myself, I was eager to meet the man behind Elena. As is the case for many artists who thrive on malevolent world-views, Zvyagintsev turns out to be immaculately polite and soft-spoken in person. In a cramped upstairs office at Houston’s Film Forum, we talk by way of a translator, a beautiful Russian woman who looks like a stewardess for Aeroflot. Wearing a flannel shirt and glasses, Zvyagintsev responds to my questions with a wry, ambiguous smile, as if we were in a friendly poker match and saying too much might give away his hand.
In 2003, your first film The Return, which won the Golden Lion at Venice, really established your career and your aesthetic: all the tracking shots of windswept fields, distant oceans, forests. Was it a conscious choice to get away from that, to make a film set in a city?
It wasn’t a strategic decision to do something different what I had done before. It was just a story that developed was worth telling and it happened to be a city story. It has to be a city story.
It was very exciting to see present-day Moscow on film. But it’s very much two Moscows: the world of wood-paneled condos and private gyms on the one hand, and then this world of tenements and nuclear silos. Is this how you see Russia today?
It’s obvious there are two cities and this isn’t going to go away. But that inequality is just the background, the set if you will, where the drama of one human being is being played out. I don’t pretend to show the entire spectrum of Russian society. There are of course other groups—middle classes, the artists, there are a lot of other sub-cultures and different social layers that exist and aren’t depicted here. This is just a story narrowed down to two houses, two families; but it doesnt reflect all of Russia.
With this film, and with other recent Russian films—I’m thinking of Loznitsa’s My Joy which premiered at Cannes in 2010—there seems to be this explosion of extremely talented nihilistic energy coming from Russian cinema all of a sudden. Is this a new thing for Russian film?
Maybe, it could be. In this movie I was just trying to make an objective observation of what’s happening to life in Russia. And since you picked up on that sense of nihilism, well then, it’s probably there. But there’s much more than just nihilism in Russia. I’m sure someone could bring you a Russian movie full of optimism and happiness. Everyone sees something of himself in art. As far as the film My Joy, I have to tell you I believe it to be one of the most powerful movies of our time. It’s so exact, so uncompromising and hopeless in the way it reflects what what is happening to us.
I totally agree. And it seems to me that Elena is very much in the same mood. I know you were recently at an anti-Putin rally. I’m really curious what kind of reception the film had in Russia?
This was not a political film. It’s not anti-something. It’s not about rich and poor. Rich and poor exist in every society. The topic of inequality will always be around and yet, with Elena, I believe I said something new. But it’s not meant as propaganda against the oligarchs. That would be reducing it to a simple message. It’s not really about politics, it’s about human beings, and the state of our souls, outside of all political systems. And yet you’re right, part of the Russian audience does see it as an anti-Russian movie, Russo-phobic even. The rich audience of the film perceived it as a kind of justification for their own situation, for why they are so distant from the rest of society.
I want to ask you about the influence of Tarkovsky. I know you are compared with him a lot. What did you learn from watching his films? Do you feel the need to get out from under his shadow?
In 2003 when my first movie became such a great success, I was still just a kid from the street. So when they call you the next Andrei Tarkovsky, obviously it’s a great compliment. It was unbelievable to be compared to one of the greatest directors of all time. But in the end, you want to be who you are and not be in the shadow of someone else. But this doesn’t dictate my decisions. As my career progresses that distance will happen on its own. Right now I’m just making the films that I would like to watch myself. As far as his influence, I don’t think there are any directors –– and not just in Russia but in the world –– who didn’t learn something from Andrei Tarkovsky. How can you be a Russian director and not feel the influence of Tarkovsky?
Even though many of the films are all so bleak, it’s really exciting to see all this new activity in Russian film. What’s next for you?
In our language we say “life leads, and the songs follow.” Which is to say I’m impulsive and spontaneous, so it’s hard to see into the future. My next step could be anywhere. But I am excited about some projects in the works: one will even be in English with American actors, an American story, transposed to Russia. Even so, it will be in the same style with difficult, complex feelings. That’s who I am, it’s what I want to do.