Horses and Men
In Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film Elena, a middle-aged woman with the name of the film’s title kills her husband Vladimir. Vladimir is rich. He lives with his wife in one of those extensive apartment buildings that look like they’ve been made only to be furnished with the ensembles shown by stylish magazines for interior decoration. Elena, on the other hand comes from a place that appears more like its been cut out of a history book on the Soviet Union. Elena’s unemployed, beer-loving son still lives in a tower block, and has problems feeding his pregnant wife and his two sons. She frequently visits them to help with the money she is able to beg off Vladimir, or, if he refuses, with money she secretly uses from the credit card he gave her.
At the beginning of the film, Elana and Vladimir lead a routined life, Elena’s part in which is to make Vladimir’s life easier. She cleans the apartment, makes breakfast, turns off the television that Vladimir falls asleep in front of, and wakes him up in the morning. At night, she sleeps in a different room. Clearly they don’t seem to share a lot of things and if she doesn’t give the impression that she really loves that man, she could be called a maid with extra services. But this self-sacrificial attitude seems to be part of her character. Elena is someone who lives to make others happy. For Elena, everything in others lives should be harmonious, and she feels that it is up to her make it that way.
But then Vladimir has a heart-attack during his swimming exercises, and things change. The paterfamilias has the feeling that he might die soon. He calls his lawyer to declare his last will and tells his wife about his plans to give most of his heritage to his daughter from a previous marriage with whom he recently reconciled. Elena’s hopes of sending her grandson to university, her dreams of helping them move out of the dismal place they inhabit, vanish. She has to decide between their world and his, whether to save their life at the loss of her husbands.
Clearly the murder is something that Elena is able to choose on her own. If she lived for Vladimir, taking his life would mean a threat to her own. But she kills him, and the reason she kills him is utterly selfish: she doesn’t want to give up the luxurious life she has got to know. So in a way the murder she commits is emancipating for her. It is the first time in the film that she acts by herself, that she serves her own cause. However, it also seems to be the last because there is still her family that moves into Vladimir’s luxurious apartment, and that quickly claims the place as theirs. Elena doesn’t have much to say to the changes they want to make, and quickly falls back into the position of the servant. This puts doubt upon the motivations for killing Vladimir. Did he die for her or for the family? Was Elena acting on her own or was she acting in the name of her family?
In tradition with a very Russian idea of punishment, Elena is haunted by her deed. After the murderer, the outside world transforms into an apocalyptic panorama, reflecting and threatening Elena’s inner state of being. The smooth, almost clinical protection of the apartment is pierced by an image of a dead horse that Elena sees on the way to hand her dead husband’s money over to her son’s family. As she arrives the lights in the entire district are turned off. While this could be just another power breakdown caused by some technical problem, it is obvious that it echos Elena’s feelings, ultimately confusing an outside cause with an inner one.
But despite these ominous incisions, Elena’s emotions remain casual. As prior to the crime, she doesn’t say much, leaving words and actions to the people she lives with. In the end, the real tragedy might be her solitude, her exclusion from the people dear to her. She lives in between two social groups, and is accepted by neither. The daughter of her husband thinks she married for money, and maybe Vladimir thought so too, when he decided to cut short her part of the heritage, almost as if he wanted to put her fidelity to test. Her family despises her for the same reason, thinking that she wants to profit from something they are deprived of. In search for acceptance, she sacrifices her life to both sides. Thus it is perhaps her own selfless being that haunts her, not so much the murder itself. The dead horse does not only parallel Vladimir’s fate but also Elena’s. In fact she is much more like a horse than Vladimir. Is it not Elena who is domesticated, like a horse, for the purpose of serving other people?
We met Zvyagintsev in Cannes, where the film won the Special Jury Prize of the “Un Certain Regard” section…
One of the last images of the films shows the small baby of the family on the death-bed of the murdered husband. What future can this family expect?
That image is indeed a kind of new continuation of life. That interpretation is possible. That would mean that life is a cycle.
I think the family will obviously inhabit this place, they will make it their own. They will put marinated cornichons in the bathtub, they will construct a wall, so that they don’t have to listen to the boy crying. They will reclaim that space, which I show in the film in the sequence where they explain what they are going to do.
So they don’t loose their life, their individuality. They will not die by becoming different?
No. They are like barbarians. They impose their rules of life into every sphere they enter. This is how they will behave. I even thought about giving the film a different title, even though the title Elena existed from the start. So at one point we considered calling the film “The Invasion of the Barbarians”. Of course this title would have been too reductive, but it is essentially that.
Can Elena live with her crime?
I hope that the people who see the film will go in the same direction as I did. I tried to point out several stages concerned with her future and her mental state. For example, in the scene we did with the dead horse, when she is on the train; the scene when the light goes in her son’s apartment. Those are signs of a moral state that are almost unbearable and won’t lead to an end. She’s not indifferent to what she’s done. Those signs leave traces that she has to endure.
The horse did remind of one of Tarkovsky’s favorite metaphors…
A strong parallel but also terrible, because for Tarkovsky the horse is always beautiful and strong. But here the horse is dead. I think the dead horse is characteristic of our time. There is an absence of faith, an absence of hope for the future.
What role does television play in the film?
I think that the television is so present because it prevents the characters from seeing themselves in the mirror. They look at the lives of others so that they don’t have to look at themselves. The television is a deformed mirror, that man chooses for himself because he doesn’t want to deal with his own personality.
I know that there are a lot of young people today who don’t watch television anymore. More and more people have stopped having television at home. Young people communicate via the internet and it is from the internet that they receive information about the outside world. Television is terrible in that it degrades the image of what is happening outside, which would explain this repulsion of young people against television.
The television seemed to connect both worlds, that of Elena’s family and that of Elena’s husband. Are there other similarities?
I don’t think there are other similarities. The two worlds are isolated. If you are in a car, and you are rich, you have tinted windows so that you are not seen by other people and, in return, you don’t see the life that is outside your car. If these people go and watch a movie, they don’t go into the same theaters, there are “VIP theaters” for people who have money. The two worlds don’t mix. The difference between these two worlds is colossal, the distance between them gigantic. Neither world has the chance to discover the other world. One world doesn’t have a reason to see how the other world lives, and the other world doesn’t have the means.
They don’t have the means, but isn’t a desire for money something that both worlds share?
Yes, that counts for every society. Moneys is the blood of the poor… money is the only possibility to turn dreams into reality. Both sides in the film know that. For some there also is ambition. For example an oligarch who has some 900 million, might make a billion, if he is ambitious enough.
Is it possible for Elena to resist money?
I would go even farther. I think Elena is really in love with that man, she is very convinced about her love for Vladimir. There is almost a spiritual relationship between them. If there hadn’t been the decision about the testament to make, they would continue to live their life in harmony. She tries to find alternatives to avoid having to make the decision.
But no matter what your feelings for another person might be, you favor your own self if you have the task of saving yourself, and if it is not yourself it’s your family, their lineage that has to continue. This is the priority.
Is your film feminist?
No. In spite of everything, women are still extremely dependent today, they depend on money, capital, husbands. We still live in a patriarchal society. But it’s not through a form of protest that I say this, it’s only an observation. Elena really made this choice on her own, she is conscious of what she is doing and of what she has to confront.
Author Moritz Pfeifer
The film review and interview was first published in The East European Film Bulletin.