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Interview: 'Elena' Director Andrei Zvyagintsev Talks Changed Ending, Favorite Filmmakers

by Christopher Bell
May 17, 2012 5:45 PM
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Elena' Director Andrei Zvyagintsev

Cinephiles, unite! The name Andrei Zvyagintsev is relatively unknown on these shores, as his remarkable debut "The Return" quietly came and went (though it is now on Netflix Instant -- GO!) and his tremendous sophomore effort "The Banishment" never saw a proper release in the West. That's all about to change with "Elena," his third and most refined piece of work, which not only saw a premiere at Cannes Film Festival but also left with the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. Zvyagintsev's aesthetic might make him seem like Andrei Tarkovsky II, but his voice is still his own, eschewing his mentor's liberal use of magic for more grounded, realistic stories.

Set in contemporary Russia, the film follows the titular character (Nadezhda Markina) as she cares for her wealthy second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in a gigantic penthouse apartment, in a high-class area of the country. By contrast, Elena's jobless son Sergey dwells in a lower-income section with his family, faced with the dilemma of whether to have his son Sasha join the military because they can't afford school. It's up to grandma to sort things out, but unfortunately, Vladimir refuses to cough up a single penny, citing Elena's son as lazy and irresponsible. Why should he continue to support him? He's got a point, but his wife must also think about the welfare of her blood -- which leads to some drastic measures.


It's a premise ripe for a thriller, but Zvyagintsev's film is subtle, slow, and quiet, using a genre-esque story to instead explore the notion of family, and the inherent conflict between class divisions. In promotion for "Elena," we had the pleasure of chatting with the filmmaker about the changes made to the original script, his favorite directors, and his excision from the rather shoddy "New York, I Love You." "Elena" opens in New York today and you can watch the trailer here.

Once Was An Apocalypse
Originally, "Elena" was born as a US-production, focusing on characters dealing with the apocalypse. That eventually fell through and the project was relocated to Russia, with Zvyagintsev and screenwriter Oleg Negin excising any actual reference to the end of the world, but retaining the main characters and relationships. Still, there's a grim, hopeless coat that remains on the film. "When it comes to humanity, human beings, the essence of human beings, there's definitely an apocalyptic tone -- reevaluating your values, your spiritual values," commenting on the build-up to Elena's ultimate decision to deal with her husband and the soul-searching she embarks upon afterwards: "Kind of an entropy, the state of entropy."

He Loves Match Point
Well, maybe. Here he runs down a list of a few filmmakers he enjoys and how he likes to see their movies: "I like to watch a story I know nothing about. I choose the director that I see. Coen Brothers, P.T. Anderson, Woody Allen. I'm not going to read about the movie or see trailers, I want to preserve the intimacy between the movie and myself." Apparently, he's as juiced for "The Master" as we all are.

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  • Ikallicrates | September 30, 2012 7:59 PMReply

    Zvyagintsev should have stuck with his original ending (the blackout). When I saw this film, I expected it to end when the lights went out. The rest of the film was an anticlimax.

  • Huffy | May 17, 2012 8:53 PMReply

    I'm amazed that they cut his bit from NY I Love You, especially considering how mediocre the finished product was. Audiences aren't going to run out of an anthology because a single segment is slightly obtuse. Anyways, one of the best up-and-comers in the world in my opinion.

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