Whenever an exciting new Russian film-maker appears, it’s only a matter of time before he’s hailed “the New Tarkovsky.” Such was the instant fate of Andrei Zvyagintsev when his debut The Return landed the Golden Lion at the 2003 Venice Film Festival. It’s very rare for anyone to win such a major prize with their first feature, and Zvyagintsev went overnight from near-unknown to internationally-lauded auteur.
Almost five years later, his second picture premiered in competition at another prestigious international film-festival – but the general reaction to The Banishment at Cannes in May was bafflement, dismay and disappointment. Even the awarding of the Best Actor prize to Konstantin Lavronenko was greeted with raised eyebrows in many critical quarters. The Croisette can be an unforgivingly harsh environment, of course, and it seems that in this instance there was a considerable over-reaction to a work which, while a cut below The Return, nevertheless provides evidence to suggest Zvyagintsev may possibly become to the early 21st century what Tarkovsky was to the late 20th.
Tarkovsky, famously, made “nothing but masterpieces” (this quote first coming from a most unorthodox source, namely a deceased Boris Pasternak during a seance Tarkovsky attended near the start of his career.) And whereas The Return seemed almost casual in the originality and audacity of its narrative structure, everything about The Banishment – adapted by Artyom Melkumian and Oleg Negin from William Saroyan’s little-known 1953 novel The Laughing Matter – has been meticulously crafted to give the appearance of a chef d’oeuvre. It conforms to the pervasive fallacy that any story, slowed down to 33rpm and its running-time extended far beyond two hours, must automatically become Serious Art – especially if breathtaking wide-screen cinematography is deployed, to the accompaniment of a classical, orchestral score which includes several selections from the Estonian maestro Arvo Pärt.
It also helps if the film contains numerous allusions to mythology and/or theology, that the characters are given to protracted silences and meaningful stares, that their motivations and crucial actions are cloaked in near-impenetrable mystery. All of this applies to The Banishment, in which (via Mikhail Krichman’s limpid images) we observe a married couple during a particularly traumatic period in their relationship. It’s obvious that, despite their having two lovely, beloved young children, all has not been well between Vera (Sweden’s Maria Bonnevie) and Alex (Lavronenko) for some time – perhaps in part due to Alex’s unspecified connections to organised crime.
Though outwardly respectable, it’s clear that Alex has a shady past – as personified by his brother Mark (Aleksandr Baluyev), a leather-jacketed bouncer type who, as the film begins, is seen driving through an unspecified city’s grim industrial zones after receiving a serious gun-shot wound to his arm. He makes it to Alex’s comfortable apartment for emergency ad-hoc medical-treatment and, soon after, Vera and Alex repair to the countryside dacha previously owned by Alex’s late father. It’s here that, as their children frolic in the misty pastures, Vera drops her bombshell: she’s pregnant, and the child isn’t Alex’s. Her husband plunges into an existential crisis – one which yields extreme consequences for all concerned…
It’s only at this point – nearly an hour in – that The Banishment kicks into gear, the extreme emotions on view fully justifying the deeply ominous slow burn of the opening reels. But, as with The Return, Zvyagintsev delights in subverting our expectations of narrative development – leaving us with an enigma rather than conventional closure. Whereas with The Return such an approach felt fresh, invigorating and thought-provoking, with The Banishment it feels more like obfuscation – more of a pretentious gimmick.
We discover, during a final-act flashback, that perhaps Alex was the father of Vera’s unborn child after all – which, if true makes her behaviour incomprehensible and naggingly implausible. Zvyagintsev at times implies a metaphysical/supernatural angle to what appears a fairly straightforward, realistic story – though one in which geographical and chronological signifiers are kept to a minimum (it looks like present-day Russia, but this may be an incorrect assumption.) In the end, however, these not-so-subtle hints – there are several pointers to the biblical Annunciation – come across as intellectual window-dressing, rather than an integration of ambitious philosophising within the contours of a melodramatic chamber-piece.
There’s a definite sense that, in straining so hard for auteur-style greatness, Zvyagintsev has ended up merely aping the cinematic giants who have come before him – emphasising his own shortcomings in the process. But there are sufficient compensations and distractions here to suggest that he is a genuine talent – albeit one who needs a firmer editorial hand if he’s to fully maximise his considerable potential.
While the interior scenes have a slightly stilted, stagey feel, the picture really comes alive in the numerous exterior sequences, especially those where dialogue is at a minimum: that opening, wordless stretch with Mark in his car, mirrored by a near-identical section much later in which Alex is the driver; atmospheric, transcendent passages in the bosky environs of the dacha; a very show-offy, technically breathtaking, visually ravishing tracking shot following the passage of water down a hill and under the house – the most overt of several hommages to Tarkovsky.
It’s no accident, however, that Tarkovsky’s greatest work – Mirror - is also one of his shortest and most concise. And Zvyagintsev should also check out Ivan Vyrypayev’s Euphoria, a Russian picture from last year which has numerous thematic and visual parallels with his present picture but runs roughly less than half length and contains more in the way of spellbinding, ecstatic moments: The Banishment is, one could say, Euphoria without the euphoria. Its most powerful single image is an overhead shot of children completing a jigsaw – as a playful kitten wanders absently through the frame from bottom to top. The jigsaw – an Annunciation, as it happens – is, like The Banishment, a large, beautiful, intricate, fascinating work… with an enormous hole slap-bang in the middle.
157m (BBFC timing)
director : Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return.)
editor : Anna Mass (debut)
seen 7.Sep.08 Newcastle (Tyneside Cinema : £6.85)