CAPSULE: ELENA (2011)

Heart of a Dog ((The title of a 1925 novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, a biting satire of the New Soviet man.))

The Russian Revolution of 1917 and Michail Bulgakov gave birth to a new biological species: the “dog-man” Sharikov ((The hero of “Heart of a Dog,” made by crossing a dog with a proletarian man)).  The Internet revolution of the 21st century gave birth to the “Anonymous Man.”  The Anonymous Man is a crafty creature who is almost as clever as a dog.  The Anonymous Man has neither fortune, nor any features.  Yet for all that, when herding together, Anonymous Men become omnipotent and invincible.  In ancient times the Anonymous Men used to have another name: “the People.”

The Anonymous Men throng the Internet step by step.  Then they crawl to the Tahrir and Manezhnaya Squares like zombies from a horror movie.  Africa’s colonels are trembling in fear.  The Persian Gulf’s sheiks are hiding out in corners.  The faces of the former masters of Europe are painfully pummeled by statuettes.

In Russia, Alexey Navalny ((A Russian political and social activist who in recent years gained great prominence amongst Russian bloggers and mass media due to his social campaigning activity)) raises the Anonymous Men against the power of the “Thieves and Swindlers.” (( A humorous nickname for the ruling party in Russia led by Prime-Minister Putin.))

On the other hand, the fate of the present idols, the “people’s protectors”, is not much better.  As soon as you raise your head a little above the crowd of Anonymous Men and become a bit wealthier, smarter or luckier, you are punished.  You, Navalny, and you, Shevchuk ((Yuri Shevchuk is a Russian singer/songwriter who leads the rock band DDT.  Shevchuk is highly critical of the undemocratic society that has developed in Vladimir Putin’s Russia.)): once you’ve struck a pose—get a whack!  The anger of the Russian Anonymous Man finds its allegorical counterpart in left-wing and liberal cinema – the so-called Russian “New Wave”. Almost all important Russian movies of 2006-2010—Help Gone Mad, Wolfy, Wild Field, Yuri’s Day, School, Russia 88, The Revolution That Wasn’t and the quasi-national My Joy—look at reality from the little man’s position.  (Ilya Demichev’s Kakraki is a rare exception).  In Russia, a war between the power and the people, the aristocracy and the plebs, is looming.

And now, against the background of the egalitarian left-wing cinema, Andrei Zvyagintsev makes Elena, the most anti-populist film in 20 years.  In the context of current political life, this picture may become the Elite’s banner in its war against the underprivileged of all sorts.  We have seen nothing of the kind since Vladimir Bortko’s film adaptation of Heart of a Dog.

Still from Elena (2011)

If we discard the metaphors, the plot of Elena can be vulgarly described as a battle between relatives for a posh apartment in the center of Moscow: a typical sort of topic for the popular TV show “Time of Court.”  The “new aristocrats,” youngish pensioner Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and his heiress she-devil Katya (Yelena Lyadova), confront the “grassroots people.”  The lower classes are represented by Vladimir’s new wife, medical worker Elena (Nadezhda Markina), her unemployed son Seryozha (Alexey Rozin), her daughter-in-law Tanya (Yevgeniya Konushkina), and her grandchildren – a chav and deviationist Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), and an Anonymous Baby.

The battle unfolds in a slow, even in a highbrow manner.  But at the peak of the conflict, Elena and her simple-minded son Seryozha begin to quote Shvonder and Sharikov, (characters from 1925’s “Heart of a Dog”) almost verbatim, as an irrefutable argument.

Sharikov: ‘I didn’t go to college I don’t own a flat with fifteen rooms and a bathroom. Only all that’s changed now—now everybody has the right to…’ Shvonder: ‘We, the house management, have come to see you as a result of a general meeting of the tenants of this block, who are charged with the problem of increasing the occupancy of this house…’

Elena: ‘What right do you have to think that you are special?  Why?  Why?  Only because you have more money and more things?’  Seryozha, replying to a refusal to provide him with another perpetual loan: ‘Well, what a sh_t!’ ‘What a f___ing tightwad!’ (read: ‘Where would I eat?’).

Elena cleans out Vladimir’s safe, just like Sharikov, who steals two 10-rouble notes lying under a paperweight in Philip Philipovich’s study.

After World War I, Europe was horrified at the scope of the slaughter. It seemed that nobody would ever think of repeating this mistake.  In the 1920s some journalists interviewed the renowned philosopher of history Oswald Spengler.  They asked the question, “Will World War II occur?” Spengler answered: “It certainly will.”  The journalists were taken aback and asked another question, “when and why?” Spengler smiled and answered, “In 20 years. Because a new generation, which knows nothing about World War I, will grow up by that time.”  After social experiments of the 20th century it also seemed that the World could never be plunged again into a search for the “Great Sacred Truth.”  So it seemed in 1989-1993.

…20 years passed.

A generational change has occurred in Russia.  Now socialism and its “charms” are a pure abstraction for people under 35, a mental construction.  The departure of the famous Russian actors Gurchenko, Kozakov, Lazarev (this list can be continued infinitely) has had far more terrible effects that we can imagine.  Over 70 years the late-Soviet intelligentsia, though alien consumer society, has managed to develop immunity to Communist idealism, and to idealism in general.  It is mainly people over 35 who reign over the society’s minds and rule the country.  The liberal ideology of the 1990s in Russia was based on the old intellectuals.  Editors-in-chief and directors, actors and ministers of the 90s, who had lived through the Brezhnev years in the USSR, knew all the advantages and downsides of the old order.  They maintained healthy skepticism.  They kept a certain distance from the idea of social equality.  And then, they began to disappear, one after another. There are now only 18 persons still alive from amongst those who signed the Letter of Forty-Two ((The Letter of Forty-Two was an open letter signed by forty-two well-known Russian literati, aimed at Russian society, the president and government, in reaction to the events of September – October 1993. It was published in the newspaper Izvestiya on 5 October 1993 under the title “Writers demand decisive actions of the government.”)).  And leftist, Communist ideas, now increasingly popular in Russia, invade society precisely as a result of the generational change.

The new generation is seizing ideological power and is eager to steer the country: not only Russia, but all over the world. Countless new leftists such as Prilepin ((Zahar Prilepin is a Russian writer, political dissident, and a member of Russia’s unregistered National Bolshevik Party since 1996)), Udaltsov ((Sergey Udaltsov is a leader of the Red Youth Movement.)), and Mantsov ((Igor Mantsov is a left-wing film reviewer.)) remember only the grudges of the 1990s.  For them, the USSR is their early idyllic childhood.  The new representatives of this new culture idealize the socialist past—not only the Soviet, but any past.  All the ills of life in modern Putin’s Russia are clearly seen.  Yet the past, the days of yore always look beautiful and magnificent.

There would be nothing to worry about, but behind the new left-wing writers and film makers are millions of anonymous jerks, who cannot analyze socialist ideas critically.  But they are always ready to jump on the band-wagon.  The base of Internet forums is made up of persons 17 to 33 years of age.  They were 13, at the most in 1991.  For them, bellowing “Long live Stalin!,” “Heil Hitler!,” or “Hare Krishna!” is a pleasant banality between masturbations.  Owing to the Internet, the Anonymous Sharikovs gained superiority in the cultural and ideological squares.  In the 19th or 20th centuries their scribbles would have not been accepted even by a provincial district evening paper. The technical revolution gave the floor to billions of fools, beautiful in their silence until now.  It is the collapse of Mind and the triumph of the Beast.

In comparison with Zvyagintsev’s previous film The Banishment, which alienated many viewers due to the metaphorical language, the plot of Elena turned out to be plain and clear. One of the reasons for this change is prosaic, namely the 2009 economic crisis.  The director had planned to work on more expensive projects.  But his ambitious plans had to be rejected in favor of the budget-priced Elena.  It is possible that the film was enriched by this forced economy; the film is more understandable and closer to what the national and Cannes critics desire to see.

Elena is filled with whole pieces of the immediate reality, in which many may recognize themselves and the circumstances of their own lives.  Biryulyovo ((A “working class” Moscow neighborhood.)), a 2×3 meter kitchen, beer in the evening; this is the world of Elena’s descendants.  The “Enjoy” fitness club, fashionable apartments on Butikovsky Pereulok costing 3 or 4 million euros; this is the world of Vladimir and Katya.  The background television broadcasts, which intoxicate the minds of the characters and lures them into their iniquities, acts as the national idea linking Butikovsky Pereulok and Biryulyovo together.  When watching Elena, note the popular TV shows “Malakhov +,” “Control Purchase,” “Living is Great,” “Wait for me,” and “Let Them Speak” murmuring in the background of the movie, as well as the remarks about women’s magazines, crosswords and erotic magazines.  The innocent calls to “change the vector of your taste preferences” and “to make healthy food tasty” turn into sinister philosophical concepts: “This is just a typically Soviet system, they just absolutely have to load up a person hoping that afterwards they… Maybe, he will manage to steer out by the end of the season.”  Or, “the country will be appalled by the fact that everything’s going to repeat itself with you, I swear, you’re going to cry for all you’ve done, and you’ll also pay for everything.”  A transient remark can reveal a lot in the destiny of director himself and, consequently, solve some unsolved puzzles from The Return, The Banishment, and even the novella from New York, I Love You.

In criticizing the underprivileged, the author of this text has to admit with bitterness that he himself is like the son Seryozha to a considerable degree.  A small apartment, four children, infantilism, dependency, lying on the sofa, sitting by the computer, drinking Baltika No. 9 ((Cheap and strong beer popular among Russian chavs.)) in the evenings, mornings and afternoons, borrowing money from parents; all this is about me. I hate the Sharikov in me.  Yet it seems to me that I am a different, an entirely different person.  It seems to me so.  I believe it very much indeed.

In spite of its artistic and social novelty, Elena a signature Zvyagintsev film all the same.  The auteur’s style is easily recognizable.  You can make sure of that by watching his early short films—“Busido,” “Obscure,” “Choice,” and his latest, the segment from the almanac Experiment 5ive+, released after Elena.  But, after all, Kira Muratova and made “the same film” for their whole lives, despite many different titles.  The individual signature is a sign of mastery.

In Elena, we again observe a conflict within a family and stern conversations with the Father.  And again, we hear laconic, significant dialogue.  This is the signature of Oleg Negin, Zvyagintsev’s regular screenwriter.  Negin always weaves the plot unhurriedly, but cunningly catches the viewer in it.  Mikhail Krichman is the cinematographer, depicting Moscow in enamel shades and slightly desolate even during a fair.  Long takes prevail, 30 to 50 seconds each.  It seems that scenery, which in real life may lie about in corners of the frame, is deliberately removed from the shot.  A clever effect is achieved in this way.  Despite the fact that Moscow is still recognizable, it nevertheless seems slightly symbolic.  Amongst Elena’s distant relatives, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue, with its desert theology set in Warsaw apartment blocks, is perhaps the closest.

But despite the political content, Elena is not a political movie is the modern sense of the word.  In his numerous interviews Zvyagintsev harshly criticized modern Russian society, complaining “Everything was sold to America long ago!”  And in Elena the new elite also recognizes itself as a cursed seed that has no future.  Zvyagintsev is equally distant from both the Reds and the Whites.  Nevertheless, in the turmoil of 2011, the film is oozing with political connotations, and plays on the side of counter-revolutionaries.  Its anti-popular pathos strikes the eye, while the anti-elitist message is barely visible.  The fact that his movie began to be perceived as a political manifesto from the very first reviews will probably prove unpleasant to the director.  For him, Elena is first of all a conversation about the “mystery of the collapse of the society’s spiritual state,” about the end of the world, not about the degeneration of political parties.

Elena is an ideology, but not a provincial, red-white ideology; it is an iconoclastic, millenarian ideology.  It’s a total protest against Renaissance humanism,whose native children are both Marxism and liberalism.  This very protest looms behind the façade of obvious interpretations.  Elena is a protest against modernism and its offspring—hedonism.  A protest against anthropocentrism, in which the highest value is the Human Being.  The crucial moments of The Banishment, the Return, and Elena are the sacrifice of man in the name of something other than himself. Of what?  As Aristotle said, to offer only something human to people means to deceive them and to wish ill on them, because people are called by their main part, the soul, for something greater than just an ordinary human life.  And Heidegger echoes him: “The meaning of existence is to allow Being to be found as the ‘glade’ of all existing things.”

The trick is that within the depths of Elena there is hidden fundamental ontology, which extends from the Greek philosophers to Martin Heidegger. And upon this foundation of ontology, the building of heroism, valor and honor, in essence, a noble, aristocratic ethics is constructed.  According to Zvyagintsev, happiness, love, and even prosperity, should cost very much.  Where is the bourgeoisie, where the “bubble gum” here?  Where is the socialist concern about people’s everyday life?

Just the other way around! According to Zvyagintsev, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions: abortions, doctors-killers, beer and lobsters.

Paradoxically, the new Zvyagintsev’s movie plays in the fields of asceticism and elitism, where Nikita Mikhalkov is the leader.  However, the fundamental difference between Europe’s favorite and Mikhalkov is that Zvyagintsev pours out the limitless ocean of doubt.   Where Mikhalkov has ready answers: “Motherland”, “Homestead”, “Honor”, Zvyagintsev has only questions.  Zvyagintsev hints, never dictates.  For this he is loved by “progressive” people.  His oeuvre resists interpretation.  The resistance, in its turn, stimulates new interpretations.

Elena has a deep bottom. And the author of a single review cannot possibly reach it.

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