Andrei Zvyagintsev manages to pull off the remarkable trick of creating in Elena a film which is both slight and magisterial at the same time. The film has the gravity of a 500 page novel, although the narrative itself is little more than a fable.
This tells us something about the way in which cinema works. Zvyagintsev’s attention to detail is meticulous. We seem to know every inch of the apartment Elena shares with her wealthy but dispassionate husband, Vladimir. The polished surfaces are contrasted with the bleakness of the estate where her son lives with his family. It’s the accumulation of detail which lends the film its power. The opening shot shows Vladimir’s flat through the branches of a tree. Peering more closely at the twilight frame, we notice a bird in the bottom left hand corner. The shot is repeated at the end. The metaphor is clear: this is cinema as ornithology. The filmmaker brings the same attributes of patience and a sheer appetite to watch as the bird-watcher, attributes his audience are obliged to share. There are sporadic moments of action, all the more intense for the way in which they suddenly flicker to life from a canvas which is so passive for so much of the time.
Whilst this runs the risk of sounding dull, it is in fact compelling. In the process Zvyagintsev reminds us that more than mere story-telling, cinema is also an exercise in perception. As such he gets away with the slight narrative, a cuckoo-in-the-nest tale which is tied up with all the neatness of a Chekhov short story in the film’s closing moments. One suspects there is an allegorical power to the story which resonates more in Moscow, perhaps, land of the newly minted super-rich, than it does here.
This is Zvyagintsev’s third film. I saw The Return on tv one night, chez Mr P. We had been channel hopping and came across it and found ourselves hooked, against all expectations. This is a director, in the model of his countryman, Sokurov, who knows the weight of the cinematic hammer he wields. His films have substance; the substance of life observed and related with a painstaking yet exhilarating precision.