Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Director: Benh Zeitlinhh
Director: Ursula Meier
The UK release of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s new Russian masterpiece Elena provides genuine reason to rejoice. Genuine five-star masterpieces of cinema don’t come along very often, and when they do there’s sadly no guarantee they’ll actually make it into British cinemas. This means that only denizens of film-festivals will even have heard of such outstanding pictures as Alexander Mindadze’s Innocent Saturday (2011), Hitoshi Matsumoto’s Symbol (2009), Helena Trestikova’s René (2008), or – all from the golden year of 2007 – Li Yang’s Blind Mountain, Ron Lamothe’s The Call of the Wild, John Gianvito’s Profit motive and the whispering wind an Jeon Soo-il’s With a Girl of Black Soil.
That such modern classics languish in semi-obscurity while week after week undistinguished fare arrives to clog up our multiplexes and arthouses alike is a sharp indictment of how distribution works in this country. But to switch from jeremiad mode to paean: back to Zyvagintsev. His 2003 debut The Return won him Venice’s Golden Lion and sparked comparisons with revered countrymen such as Andrei Tarkovsky.
But his 158-minute, excessively enigmatic follow-up, The Banishment (2007), suggested he’d taken far too much notice of his debut’s glowing reviews. Clocking in well under two hours, Elena shows Zvyagintsev wisely concentrating on plot, character and social/political context rather than portentous atmospherics – and the cumulative impact is stunning.
Front and centre is the eponymous, sixtyish Elena (Nadezhda Markina), initially nurse and later wife to wealthy older businessman Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). Both husband and wife have a child from a previous relationship, and while Vladimir dotes on his wild-child ingrate of a daughter Katya (Elena Liodova), he’s disapproving of Elena’s layabout son Sergei (Alexey Rozin), who lives with his own family in a crowded apartment on the rougher side of the city. Conflicts over these offspring gradually compel the worn-down, exasperated Elena to consider uncharacteristically drastic action…
Each step along Elena’s path towards moral culpability is precisely marked by a production which pays minute attention to particulars of place: Andrey Dergachev’s sound-design features some wonderfully ominous crow-caws; location scouting yields a range of intriguing townscapes as captured by Mikhail Krichman steely widescreen cinematography.
Most memorable of all, there’s the use of extracts from Philip Glass’s strings-heavy Symphony No. 3. His insistent, Hitchcock-inflected music crops up at just four junctures – but are vital to Zvyagintsev’s expert manipulations of noir-thriller convention. Such stylish touches are placed firmly at the service of a gripping story which, with its terrific performances and sly script, reminds us that blood is usually thicker than water and that (Russian) crime doesn’t always lead to punishment.
Elena was somewhat mysteriously – perhaps even disgracefully – passed over for a Competition slot at Cannes last year, surfacing instead in the Un Certain Regard sidebar where it picked up a ‘Special Jury Prize.’ Twelve months on, the big buzz picture in the same section was
Ben Zeitlinh’s Benh Zeitlin’s American “indie” Beasts of the Southern Wild, which arrived trailing its Sundance Grand Jury Prize and departed with the Camera d’Or (for the best first film in any section) and another gong from the international critics.
Already touted as a dark horse in the Oscar race, Beasts’ trump-card is freakishly talented child actress Quvenzhané Wallis, just five years old at the time of shooting but reckoned a strong Best Actress contender. Her character Hushpuppy narrates and is present in almost every scene of a movie – based, somewhat surprisingly given the setting and events, on a one-act play (Juicy and Delicious, by co-screenwriter Lucy Alibar) – which at its best suggests a combination of Terrence Malick’s Badlands and Cormac McCarthy’s overpoweringly atmospheric novel of the Knoxville riverside demi-monde, Suttree (“we are come to a world within the world.”)
Hushpuppy lives with her father Wink (Dwight Henry) in one of the many shacks that comprise the “Bathtub”, an isolated coastal community somewhere in the Deep South. A joyously carnivalesque, multi-racial quasi-township in an area perpetually threatened by natural and man-made hazards, the Bathtub provides a nurturing environment for the freewheelingly imaginative girl whose perspective we’re privileged to share for 90-odd minutes.
A dirt-poor (but ‘appy) cousin of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom - Alma Har’el’s Bombay Beach is its non-fiction step-sibling – Beasts of the Southern Wild is perhaps a little too fond of its own brand of hardscrabble, scruffy tweeness, and the bittersweet-fairytale-Americana stuff is occasionally laid on just a tad too thick. But there’s also something appealing about this life-affirmingly lo-fi fable, which is often more African than African-American in its magical-realist intensity and which provides some genuinely ecstatic grace-notes amid all the overgrown kudzu and the overstewed gumbo.
From the sweltering wilds of poverty-row Louisiana to the rarefied, moneyed slopes of the Swiss Alps: Ursula Meier’s Sister features, like Beasts of the Southern Wild, a fine screen performance from a junior actor – 14-year-old Kacey Mottet Klein – but there the similarities end. This is a glum drama that adheres strongly to the established modes of European art cinema as it observes two cash-strapped siblings – Mottet Klein’s Simon and Léa Seydoux’s significantly older Louise – eking out a living, by fair means or foul, in a fancy ski resort. Britain’s Martin Compston and The X Files‘ Gillian Anderson pop up in somewhat ‘random’ fashion, but the strong cast is ill-served by a screenplay over-reliant on mannered contrivance and one big twist revelation that makes little narrative sense.
A decidedly disappointing follow-up to Meier’s pleasingly offbeat Isabelle Huppert vehicle Home (2008), which also featured the now-gangling Mottet Klein in his big-screen debut, Sister did attract a fair amount of critical support – and a ‘Special’ Silver Bear when premiering at Berlin back in February, but pales in comparison with Miguel Gomes’ similarly Berlinale-buzzed Tabu. Which, if you’re lucky, might still be playing at an arthouse near you.
10th October 2012
written for Tribune magazine
Jigsaw Lounge’s 2012 Top Ten, with Elena in pole position