The film that purred
The following story is true, even if it probably sounds so silly that you may think I’ve made it up. I share it with you just because I try to be honest in my blogging, even about embarrassing things.
It happened the other night as I watched Elena. Since it was a Russian movie and I’ve got prejudices about those, I was prepared for something pretty slow and heavy, and chances were also that it would involve symbolism that was beyond my comprehension. To make sure to stay fresh I had taken precautions and increased my coffee intake over the day as much as I could without risking having to take bio breaks during the screening. I was ready for any kind of artfulness, weirdness and slowness and I was determined to not fall asleep or think that anything was weird. My mind was wide open for whatever would come.
That’s how it came that I came up with an explanation when I first noticed the sound of an engine that came and went, sometimes loud, blending into the music by Philip Glass, sometimes barely noticeable. It was as if someone was driving a scooter in a far distance and I thought to myself: “This will get an explanation eventually. Perhaps it’s the sound of something we’re going to see later on? Perhaps this is what the unhappy woman hears in her mind. Maybe she’s dreaming of taking off somewhere, maybe the scooter is a symbol of the freedom she’d like to get. And when we hear it louder, she’s closer to reach it and when we don’t hear it as she doesn’t feel it as strong”
The engine sound went on and on and after a while it changed in my head. I came to think that it probably wasn’t a scooter after all; I couldn’t truthfully sense the smell of petrol from this lady. Not the type. But this didn’t prevent me from coming up with a new, clever explanation:
Of course it wasn’t a vehicle I heard; it was the sound of a purring cat! She was actually purring inside and depending on how happy or unhappy she was, she’d purr loudly or quietly. To be fair I couldn’t successfully associate exactly what was going on at the screen with the level of purring. She seemed to be happy for strange reasons. The purring level didn’t make sense. But again: it was an artsy Russian movie, so what did I know?
I was positive it all would come together. Towards the very end of the film, the engine sound went up on a new level and I knew, I just KNEW it must be a scooter after all, the purring cat was out of the picture now, and I waited for the motorbike to turn up. Soon we’d see her take off on it towards the horizon!
And I waited. And waited. And waited. I even sat stupidly through the aftertext and waited, perhaps there would be one of those funny little extra scenes where the source of the purring would be revealed. But it didn’t come and they lit the light in the salon and this was it. It was over.
It was only then, as I walked out of the theatre, that I overheard a conversation between a couple of people from the audience and a staff member and realized the truth.
That sound wasn’t intentional. Something was broken. There shouldn’t be any purring engine in this movie. “Or at least there’s none that I’ve heard of”, she added as a disclaimer.
We looked at each other, a moment of awkwardness. How was it that no one had figured this out during the screening? And then we started to confess. It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had tried to make sense of the sound rather than question it. It was an art house movie, so you have to assume that everything is working as intended, even when it doesn’t work at all.
Neither of us demanded our money back. We all knew there was none: this was the last remaining stand-alone theatre in our city and every day it survives is a miracle. What mattered most to us was that they could fix the machinery as soon as possible. This salon had been closed down for a couple of months after a water leakage and this had meant that the amount of available independent movies had been cut in half. We didn’t want to see that again due to issues with purring.
A gloomy film
But I suppose it’s about time I say a few words about the film. Did I take anything from it, apart from my own creative ideas about scooter engines and inner purring?
Indeed I did. This is the second movie I see by Andrei Zyvagintsev. The last one was The Return (2003) a low budget movie that became a big success among critics and got several awards when it came out. The story about two boys on an outing with their abusive father, who tries to reconnect to them after a long absence, was beautifully shot and as bleak as you could imagine, every moment oozing of Russian melancholy. I fell in love with it and thought that this was a director I wanted to return to.
Elena is also a film about gloom. We see gloomy people in gloomy settings, leading gloomy lives with gloomy prospects. Elena and Vladimir is a couple in their sixties, both with grown up children from previous marriages.Vladimiris the one with the money, while Elena comes from poor conditions. Her son is unemployed and doesn’t seem to have much other ambition in life but to beg Elena for financial support him and his growing family. Elena sees no other way but to beg her husband for money, even if she knows he doesn’t like that and thinks that her son should be able to provide for himself. After a heart attack Vladmir ends up in a hospital and decides to make arrangements for what will happen to his fortune in case of his death, a plan that isn’t in the line of what Elena would like to see. The question is what she’s going to do about it.
Lack of sympathy
In some ways Elena reminds of The Return, in the way that they’re both about people who live under harsh conditions and struggle to survive. They make decisions and take actions that not always are good or advisable, but which make sense if you see it from their perspective.
There is one big difference however, namely how you sympathize with them. While my heart was bleeding for the abused children, in The Return and I had very little understanding for the father figure, it’s not quite as easy to take a side in the story in Elena, to pick a hero and stick with it.
I suppose some people would argue that it’s unfair that some people live in luxury and others in poverty. Perhaps there is some moral obligation here that says thatVladimirshould help out his wife’s family financially now that he has the opportunity. After all – they’re relatives. He seems like a coldhearted, egotistical old bastard, who just uses the poor Elena as a free housemaid, giving her very little love and attention in return, never really looking at her as an equal since she comes from a different class.
On the other hand – the way Elena’s family behaves makes me cringe. If they’re poor, they seem to have put themselves in that position or at least they’ve made no effort whatsoever to break out of it by their own means. They’re a lazy and ungrateful lot and if someone asked me to support them, I’d hesitate to do so, at least not unconditionally.
While I did feel a little bit sorry for Elena, who is pressed from two directions, by her husband and her son, I wasn’t as devastated about her misery as I was watching the little boys in The Return. This makes for a slightly less engaging film.
But even so, it’s still very good, crafted in a minimalist way, where even long shots in complete silence are filled with meaning and tension. I can’t pinpoint why, but all that coffee drinking was clearly overkill from my side. I had no difficulties whatsoever to stay awake and interested to see what direction the story would take. I couldn’t tell where it would end until it ended and this is something I always appreciate in movies.
There are some very good acting performances, where Nadezhda Markina who plays Elena stands out. Her combination of vulnerability and a silent, inner motherly strength, reminded me of actresses such as Liv Ullmann and Pernilla August. The music is also remarkably powerful, especially contrasted to the periods of complete silence.
Or, well, as silent as it could be with the engine sound in the background.
But that’s a special version I’m afraid neither you, nor anyone else ever will get to see. They only showed it once, but I’ll never forget it. The film that purred.
Elena (Andrei Zvyagintsev, RU, 2011) My rating: 4/5