“King over all that is proud”: Nature vs the Humans in the Films of Andrey Zvyagintsev (PART TWO)

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This is PART TWO of a three-part feature. See the full Introduction and PART ONE.

*WARNING*: Because this essay concerns itself with how specific recurring themes/images relate to the development of a film’s narrative arc, it necessarily contains plot spoilers.

Elena

In many of his films, Andrey Zvyagintsev situates human beings as sometimes fragile, sometimes powerful forces in nature. Leviathan is only the latest film to explore this motif. Both The Return and Elena examine the struggle of an individual against an oppressive larger system, though the human-made structures turn out to be no match for “irreversible” Nature.

Though Elena seems to offer a different conclusion than The Return, it at least agrees with the premise that humans have a destructive impact on their environment during their however brief time on earth. This motif is established right in the first shot of the film where the camera zooms in with crystal clarity on a tree branch and a lone and fragile bird; harsh urban noise can be heard in the background. We are made to wonder early on if the film is setting up a parallel between a threatened natural world and the lower-income family that is vulnerable to the avarice and greed of the rich.

But Zvyagintsev challenges us to decide where our sympathies lie—with the downtrodden but grasping children of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), or with Elena’s practical but cold-hearted husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov)? The conflict is between two families tied together through marriage: the rich Vladimir and his seemingly spoiled daughter Katerine (Elena Lyadova, in a brief but brilliant performance), and Elena and her unemployed son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). The issue at stake is whether or not Vladimir will, when he dies, leave money to Elena’s son and his struggling family. Early in the film he assents to offering Sergey a modest sum, mainly to prevent the grandson Vitya (Aleksey Ogurtsov) from being drafted by the army; but then Vladimir later reneges on his promise. So the question remains, particularly in light of the conflict we see in The Return: are we also meant to see Elena and her family as fragile creatures living in a harsh environment, as victims of the “system”?

There’s plenty of support for this argument throughout the majority of the film. The meticulous camera work follows Elena as she makes her way through the bleak urban wasteland we see in other Zvyagintsev films. Then we meet Elena’s son Sergey and daughter-in-law Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina): they live in a cramped apartment, and in the very first shot of Sergey, we see him leaning glumly over his balcony—just one miniscule “resident” of this otherwise indistinguishable grey world. (There’s a similar scene in Leviathan, though the focus is largely on the seacoast landscape.)

In contrast, Vladimir leads a luxurious lifestyle: he is waited on, hand and foot, by Elena, who functions as wife, nurse, and housemaid. Vladimir drives a luxury car—apparently protected by the urban squalor around him—and then goes off to the gym to ogle younger women and swim at his leisure. Eventually, Vladimir has a severe heart-attack during his swim. Later, when he reiterates his disparaging view of Elena’s ne’er-do-well son (who’s perpetually unemployed), we might even find pleasure in the thought of his imminent demise. For isn’t Vladimir just one of a number of monstrous patriarchs in Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre?

But when Vladimir does die, it occurs through the help of Elena, suggesting that the apparent heroine of the film might just be the antagonist—the destroyer of the fragile after all. Having just heard that he will not honor even the modest sum he once promised, Elena vindictively slips a Viagra pill into his regular medicine, and the reaction triggers a fatal heart attack. There is no court trial, no suspicions—so smoothly has Elena covered her crime.

In addition, her son Sergey, though not a direct accomplice in the crime, comes across as a loafer and a deadbeat, insulting his wife and teaching his son bad habits. So we question why Elena would kill to provide money for such a creature. As for Sergey’s son Vitya, he takes after his father, particularly when we see him engaging in a senseless brawl. Such examples, as well as the closing scene, where Elena, Sergey, Tatyana, and Vitya take over Vladimir’s home, reinforces the predatory instincts of Elena and her brood.

Vladimir’s estranged daughter Katerine offers a third perspective, that humans generally are rotten creatures, whatever their social status. Katerine has already been positioned by Elena as the enemy of her family since she, as the biological daughter of Vladimir, seems likely to win the inheritance lottery after the old man dies. But Vladimir disparages her, too, calling her a “Goddamn hedonist” at one point—again, implying that we should look critically at both sides of the conflict. When Vladimir claims she is “trying to avoid being responsible” after she scorns the idea of having children, Katerine counters that “it’s irresponsible to produce offsprings that… are going to be sick and doomed, since the parents are just as sick and doomed.” So the film’s final aerial shot of a baby, curled up on the late Vladimir’s bed, is almost eerie as we contemplate whether Katerine’s words are prophetic.

Stay tuned for Part Three of the essay, which will focus on Leviathan…

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