Thursday, September 19, 2013

Elena: Mother Russia, Dirty Money, and Death by Viagra

by Drew Martin
I watched the film Elena last night by (yet another product of Novosibirsk, Siberia) Andrei Zvyagintsev, who is deemed the new Tarkovsky. I was really impressed, and also surprised to hear a soundtrack by Philip Glass. Zvyagintsev's camera is an invisibly silent and extremely patient observer that does not like the word "cut." In one scene it lingers in a hospital room after a main character has been discharged, only to show us the nurse strip the bed. The extended clip adds a sense of real time to this story about the submissive and neglected second wife (Elena, top) of a millionaire Muscovite.

Elena is old. Her husband is older, and is a pen stroke away from establishing that upon his death she will get merely a comfortable allowance while his bratty daughter (bottom) will "get everything." In a volcanically bold moment Elena spikes his carrot juice with a lethal cocktail made with Viagra and some other pills in their medicine cabinet. His heart stops. She burns his will, sobs at his funeral, visits his lawyer to seal the deal for half of his estate, and then moves her loser son (by another man) and his lower class family into the dead man's luxury flat.

The film has a Germanic starkness with a thuggish Eastern European undertone. This is a harsh look at a modern Russia, which seems bereft of morals and without consequences for behavior that a society would typically frown upon. One of the most interesting moments is when Elena delivers a brick of rubles to her son in the chaotic squalor of his communist-era block apartment. Immediately following the dirty-conscious/dirty-money prize, the whole neighborhood literally sinks into darkness when the electricity goes off. It is ironic; a stone's throw from the complex is a power plant with three huge cooling towers, which dominate the landscape.  Perhaps the scene is symbolic of the murder or Elena's conscious, but I read it more that Russia is a flip of a switch away from the dark ages. We follow Elena's late-teen grandson down the dark staircase and outside where he meets up with his hoodlum friends. They run out to the perimeter of the plant where they engage in a brutal attack on another group of boys.

This thin, electric veil of civilization is mocked with a number of flat-panel television screens, which are constantly showing silly programs including a cooking show with a sausage panel, and shallow dating games. Their presence reminded me of the mind-numbing wall-screens from Fahrenheit 451.

Zvyagintsev mused about Russia.
“We are a feudal society with a slavish mentality. I don’t think we can ever change this until our entire world order changes. We need to have many new generations born in freedom.” Of his medium he offered,

“A person who is in art can speak of politics through art.”