[25 May 2011]
“Don’t you feel sorry for him? Doesn’t it sting you that he is ill?” asks Elena (Nadezhda Markina). She’s just told her cynical stepdaughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) that her father is in a hospital following a heart attack. “Sting is stuck in a bee’s ass,” Katerina replies calmly. This dialogue is difficult to translate: the characters use the same word in Russian for “sorry” and a “bee’s sting.” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena, which was awarded the Special Jury Prize in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard competition, explores a familiar theme—the survival of the fittest in a capitalist society. Yet it conveys the ways language and meanings can slip, taking up this theme while remaining faithful to Russian post-Soviet sensibilities.
Elena, a former nurse, is a doting and tender wife to wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). She gets up early in a luxurious apartment, puts her best clothes on, and makes him breakfast. He accepts her care and sex, and otherwise spends his time with his PlayStation and at the gym. They watch TV in separate rooms: he likes sports, she prefers talk shows. They both have troubled relationships with children from former marriages: his daughter Katerina likes drugs and alcohol, while her unemployed son Sergei (Alexey Rozin) can’t support his wife and two children. What’s more, he can’t bribe his son’s way into college to save him from being drafted to the army—an imperative most Western families have no need to understand.
The film takes us on Elena’s long train rides to her son’s dingy suburban apartment, through conversations revealing her unreciprocated love for her selfish in-laws, and through her futile attempts to solicit her husband’s help. When, after his heart attack, Vladimir reconciles with Katerina and declares he’s leaving all his wealth to his daughter (rather than his wife or grandson, who so needs it), Elena makes a desperate decision. Although in the end she commits what for her is a terrible sin, a sacrifice her family does not deserve, her actions seem inevitable, brought about by her understanding of a mother’s duty and by the hollowness of her relationship with Vladimir.
Zvyagintsev’s two previous films, selected for Venice (The Return, Golden Lion, 2003) and Cannes (The Banishment, Best Actor, 2007), were abstract, highly symbolic tales. Elena appears more story-driven, yet here, too, spectators might seek clues to her state of mind the film’s many striking images—the lights suddenly going out, a fallen horse with a dead rider, the placement of candles in a church.
In Paolo Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place, the aging rock star Cheyenne (Sean Penn) makes his depression explicitly visible—in his Goth outfit, his red lipstick, his mane of dyed black hair, his slow awkward walk. Yet the Cannes audience delighted in witnessing his reluctant road trip through small-town America to find his father’s Nazi tormentor. And it’s not just because we heard great music—the Talking Heads, whose song gives the film its title, is just one example—or because saw David Byrne on screen as himself.
There’s a measure of delight as well in the story of a man who refuses to grow up. Cheyenne drives through a puddle to soak a group of tourists in mud, then stops the car and says, “I’m sorry, but it is only fair to tell you that I did it on purpose.” When his wife Jane (Frances McDormand)—who thinks he is bored, not depressed—asks him, “Are you trying to find yourself?” he answers, “I’m in New Mexico, not in India.”
Certainly, Cheyenne has plenty of reasons to feel bad. He stopped playing a long time ago, after a teenager committed suicide, reportedly because of his music. His best friend Mary (Eve Hewson) misses her long absent brother, and oh yes, his father just died. And yet he gets by on his abundant wit, which he uses to negotiate both his secluded Dublin life and his new U.S. surroundings. He also makes friends along the way, including the Nazi’s granddaughter Rachel (Kerry Condon), Nazi hunter Mordecai (Judd Hirsch), and inventor Robert (Harry Dean Stanton). We hope that his adventures won’t end and yet… though he asserts that he never learned to like smoking because that is an “adult” pastime, when his mission is done, Cheyenne takes an offered cigarette and inhales. His manchild phase, and our fun, is over.
Sean Penn’s wonderful performance helps to shape the sardonic perspective of Sorrentino’s film, which is in turn markedly different from the epic that won the Palm d’Or this year, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. This makes those of us who saw it all the more grateful for This Must Be the Place.