When Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Return won the Venice Festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, in 2003, arthouse films were in better shape. Now they struggle for any kind of release. Even if Zvyagintsev's latest film, Elena, is a minor masterpiece, it still hasn't released in the UK, where generally more art films release than here.
I don’t care about awards. They just help with raising the
finance for your next film
Between The Return and Elena, Zvyagintsev had also made 2007's The Banishment, which was less successful — although lead Konstantin Lavronenko won the best actor prize at Cannes, the film itself received middling reviews — while Elena took out the festival's special jury prize in Un Certain Regard in 2011.
“Oh, I don't care about awards,” insists the boyish 48-year-old auteur, who is speaking through an interpreter. “They just help with raising the finance for your next film.”
Having never met Zvyagintsev before, I ask why The Banishment didn't do as well. He says it's his favourite film though refuses to offer any easy answer as to why.
“Let's just say I did a Q&A about the film with a group of university students that lasted four hours and was published into 70 pages. You can read it if you like.”
Zvyagintsev is a perfectionist and has a reason as to why he composes every frame in the manner he does. When he came to finance Elena, he recalls one potential financier reducing the film to being about “two old people and a lot of walking”. Thankfully, his regular producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, understood the layers and subtexts Zvyagintsev applies to every scene. Given the formal manner and composition of his films, I tell Zvyagintsev I expected him to be older.
“When I saw Ingmar Bergman's [1957 film] Wild Strawberries I thought Bergman would have to be 70 to have had the necessary experiences to make a film like that. But he wasn't even 40 when he made Wild Strawberries so how he had understood this old man was incredible.”
The Bergman-loving Russian explains how within a seemingly simple story he has represented three generations of contemporary Russians in Elena. “You can see the degradation that has happened in modern society by depicting different generations, different social strata and therefore different world views. This allowed me to explore my central theme relating to modern days: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost.”
While the slow-burning film indeed begins with Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a middle-aged dowdy former nurse walking around her austere designer home as she cares for her wealthy elderly husband, waiting on him hand and foot, dutifully having sex on demand, we are unsure as to what to expect. Yet gradually we are pulled into her world as we meet her impoverished son from her former marriage and her good-for-nothing gang member grandson who will be sent into the famously harsh Russian military if she cannot come up with some cash to bribe his way into university.
Markina, a theatre actress known mostly for her television work, has deservedly won numerous acting awards around the globe for her performance as Elena (locally at 2011's Asia Pacific Screen Awards) and Philip Glass's music is very much a star here as well.
“There's a very funny story,” Zvyagintsev chuckles. “I met Philip Glass two years ago in Sundance and on my way back in Los Angeles I picked up a CD of his music. I was scoring Elena at the time and it turned out to be the perfect music to go with my images. I'd actually expected my regular composer Andrei Dergachyov to write something but he was doing sound editing on Elena and didn't have time. So we wrote to Philip Glass.
“'Why do you need my old music? Let me write you new score,' he responded. But his old music was just perfect. So you hear his Third Symphony throughout the film and in the last part you hear the whole symphony. I consider him to be the greatest composer of our time.”
Interestingly, Zvyagintsev's own life experience resonates through his films. In Elena, he says he is probably closest to the character of Elena's husband's estranged daughter as he never knew his own father. “I know he changed jobs a lot. I lived nearly all my life with my mum, who was a high school literature teacher. She always made sure I did all my homework,” he recalls affectionately, “and once when I was very ill and I was supposed to be reading Eugene Onegin, she read the entire novel aloud. She was always asking questions regarding what the novel was about, so this is probably why I don't like being asked the meaning of my movies,” he notes only half-joking.
Originally, Zvyagintsev studied to be an actor though quickly moved behind the camera. “It wasn't a conscious decision; I guess I just felt more comfortable there. Certainly when I was a second year student and I saw Antonioni's L'Avventura it changed my perception.”
He started making films in 2000 and cites his acting background for helping him extract some extraordinary performances from his casts. He was 39 when he was in Venice with The Return. “For the first time I realised what I was doing was needed, that there were people who wanted to see my movie. It was the big moment in my life.”
At the time, The Return was likened to the obsessive cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky, a huge compliment for the fastidious Zvyagintsev. Yet the accolades came with a huge sense of tragedy as one of the film's two teenage boys (who interestingly in the film see their father suddenly return home after a 12-year absence) had died. Vladimir Garin was 16 when he drowned in a lake not unlike the setting in the film.
“It was the first time I'd been to the funeral of someone who was that close to me,” Zvyagintsev admits. “One can speculate on the mysticism of June 24, 2002 being the day we shot the first sequence, and it was exactly a year later June 24 that he drowned. It was such a tragic accident. Vladimir had gone to a friend's family summerhouse by a tiny lake. They had a new rubber boat bought by his friend's mother and Vladimir went by himself into the middle of the lake. There were some girls on the shore and he jumped in the water to try to impress them and he drowned.”
When Zvyagintsev won Venice's Golden Lion the following September, he dedicated his award to Garin.