The Revelation according to Andrei Zvyagintsev doesn’t come after a terrifying future event. It is the already present moral collapse that will bring the inevitable catastrophe.
Over the last decade the Russian cinema regains the popularity that previously had both in film festivals and in viewers’ preferences. Andrei Zvyagintsev, who is one of the most recognizable contemporary Russian filmmakers, has played an important role in this return. Zvyagintsev without ever moving away from his purely Russian thematic, always manages to create films that could have an impact without geographical limitations. His third feature film, Elena / Елена (2011) premiered at the 64th Cannes Film Festival during the Un Certain Regard section and won the Special Jury Prize.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) lives with her husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) whom she had met ten years ago when she was his nurse. Vladimir is wealthy and can comfortably cover all his and Elena’s financial needs. They both have adult children from previous marriages. Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) is spoiled and selfish while Elena’s son Sergei (Aleksei Rozin) is unemployed and lazy. When Elena is forced to ask from Vladimir a large amount of money, in order to protect her grandson Sasha from army enrollment, he refuses as he considers that her son is the sole responsible for this problem. On the occasion of this event and after a health issue that he had, Vladimir is thinking to change his will so his daughter will mainly inherit his fortune. This change would restrict Elena’s power, so she must make some decisions.
With Elena, Zvyagintsev is bringing back to the spotlight a special genre of slow-burning dramatic thriller which also has plenty of film-noir elements. The director by having as a starting point and initial inspiration the film Match Point (2005) by Woody Allen, creates his own version that can have multilayered interpretations which clearly apply on the contemporary Russian society. The story is an archetypal clash of two worlds. On one hand there is Vladimir, who doesn’t have any economic problem, he lives in a nice Muscovite quarter, has a luxury apartment, drives an expensive car and spends the day at the gym. On the other hand there is Sergei, who is unemployed, he seems wasted and with no prospect, his only income is his mother’s pension, he lives with his family in in a degraded suburb outside Moscow and he spends the day drinking. The only one that can intersect these two parallel heterogeneous worlds is Elena. As she travels by train from one house to another she can both carry the problems of real Russia in the hearth of a rudimental oligarch and to the desperate Russian some minimal traces of hope for easy enrichment.
Zvyagintsev shows no sympathy for his heroes, in fact he does not express at any moment his feelings for them. He is placing them on his minimalistic canvas, and after setting the roles that they must support, he leaves them free to act by being solely responsible for their actions. Without actually manipulating the situations, he permits the events to anticipate his heroes’ decisions so everything happens as it is already prescribed. What is worse, for anything that happens no one can be considered blameless or innocent since all of them are potential victims of their involuntary or voluntary choices or sins. Even if Zvyagintsev is trying to distance himself from a religious interpretation of the subject – by leaving of course some clear hints on the relationship of religion and money – he follows a more humanistic approach that is primarily based on the sentiments. The director has already stated that Elena’s theme is The Apocalypse, although his own interpretation doesn’t lead us to any existential questioning or answers but goes towards a post-apocalyptic exposure of feelings. This of course has a rational explanation. When the heroes understand that there is nothing material in which they can rely their own existence on, then they are inevitably focused on their feelings. During that attempt they are realizing that even their feelings have been eroded so they finally accept that they have no hope. This victimization of the heroes is not used as an excuse for their actions, but it is the result of their already corrupted lives.
The Revelation according to Zvyagintsev doesn’t come after a terrifying future event that everyone fears. Instead of that, the causes are already present today and the most prominent one is the moral collapse which will also bring the inevitable catastrophe. The director, who also lives in this morally disintegrating Russia, observes his country to deduct rapidly for the past 20 years in every social level with politics being the cornerstone of corruption by defying any Soviet absurdity. The barbaric capitalism finished of the ruins that the false socialistic dream left behind and now only dissension exists. The uttermost point of moral and intellectual degradation is marked by the most popular mass media, television, which reproduces all the materialistic shoddy paragons that will also raise the upcoming generations. Killing one another, that is a consequence of Revelation, has already begun. It is hard to be controlled and the challenge now is to find a solution and to save those who still remain immaculate. Probably and deep down whatever Zvyagintsev depicts in his images is already dead but simply no one wants or can admit it.
Even the symbolizations that are used by Zvyagintsev – and they are direct references to his favorite directors – intensify his pessimism. By using nature as perhaps the only unspoiled part of the whole film, the director’s search focuses on the role of animals. The main sign is the frequent sound of ravens that foreshadows the evil that is soon arriving and replaces the sounds of other birds almost from the beginning of the film. This is also the sound that Jean-Luc Godard is extensively using for the same reason in his films from the 90s and onwards. Certainly the most important symbolism of evil omen is the horse that is killed by the train which carries Elena. According to Andrei Tarkovsky the horse is the symbol of life hence a dead horse actually indicates the end of this life. The only element that contradicts with these almost eschatological aesthetics of the film is the use of Philip Glass’s Symphony No. 3 during all the critical moments. This is a composition so dynamic and intense that it feels like breathing, as if it is alive. Maybe this is the only glimpse of hope that escapes from Zvyagintsev’s pessimism.
In the world of Zvyagintsev there is no happy end, everything seems to start bleak and continues likewise while there is a great chance to get worse. The director depicts his disappointment at his country’s future as he is convinced that those who want or might be able to replace something so rotten they are actually a socially inferior facet of the same decayed disguise and unfortunately he cannot expect anything from them. Even a baby, which is a typical paradigm of optimism for the future, in Elena just proves that this cynically gloomy vicious cycle will continue.