photo by Alexandr Reshetilov/

Contemporary Russian Cinema: Symbols of a New Era

April 2016



Symbolic Folds and Flattened Discourse: Andrei Zviagintsev’s Elena (2010)

In his theory of cinema, Deleuze (2013) critiques cinematic ‘codes’ as part of his attack on the Saussurean, structuralist roots of semiology. Deleuze places emphasis on the ‘Image’ as a cinematic object, while refusing to work with the ‘Order’, which, for him, is a burden of semiology. He views the Order in purely linguistic terms as a way to structure knowledge using the system of differences. He does not consider the Order as a transcendental object whilst he presents his movement as such. Deleuze’s singular image, containing in itself movement – ways of changing – is juxtaposed to the semiological image that always finds itself in a relationship of differences to other images, whether paradigmatically or syntagmatically. A way of dealing with this dichotomy is to privilege image/visuality over representation (the ‘real’ of the narration versus the ‘reality’ of the image), since the spectator ought to assume that somehow the image is never subsumed into narration. Cinema shows things as appearing and being ‘now’; however, I argue that such things are records, a work of memory, creating a gap in terms of temporal association. If cinematic time is a linguistic construct (the extra-orientation), one inevitably arrives at the semiologic fragmentation of time. If cinematic time is an experience (the intra-orientation), one ends up with hermeneutic narratology. If cinematic time is presentation of experience (the outer-orientation), one is buried under the weight of multiple reincarnations of ‘realism’ theories. These contradictions necessitate a series of related questions. What if time exists only as meaning and not as physicality, hence, it lacks the texture of multidimensionality and privileges flatness? Does this open the possibility of thinking of time by means of revealing and concealing? Does non-limitation of time produce a sense of possibility, an opening and a gap? Is film time a way to think of unlimited processes of relations and references? Does film provide a transition from non-knowledge to knowledge, and vice versa?

Deleuze turns to Bergson in order to unravel the mystery of (filmic) time, and he introduces two concepts: time and temporality, or movement. He focuses on the cinematic image understood as the changing being; as a result, it is no longer necessary to inquire about the meaning of images because meaning means difference. This is not a difference between the object and representation, or between film and reality, because for Deleuze a factual object is an understanding subject, and vice versa. He obliterates the distinction and the dichotomy and produces a new kind of ontology, which, I argue, is grounded in the notions of discourse as reiterative forms of being of this subject–object, and these forms produce signification which should be conceived in symbolic terms as abstractions of the subject–object. Deleuze produces a system of the ‘Whole’ which is kept in place thanks to the energies of the symbolic mode: according to him, cinematic images are metaphysical images of movement. In this regard, Deleuze works with Bergson’s concept of image whereby images are not mental entities – they are the universe as it presents itself at the interface of being, and so they are a matter of (ontological) relation, and not of (mimetic) correspondence.

In Foucault (1988) and The Fold: Leibnitz and the Baroque (1992), Deleuze evokes the concept of the fold as the fundamental ontological structure: ‘if the inside is constituted by the folding of the outside, between them there is a topological relation: the relation to oneself is homologous to the relation with the outside and the two are in contact, through the intermediary of the strata which are relatively external environments (and therefore relatively internal)’ (1992: 119). In this conceptualisation, the fold appears in the form of self-fashioning, or continuous modification of the self, as well as in the form of possibility of when the present is open to the future and subjectivity as such. This is when the self is figured by the doubling of the outside; the last carries different names in Deleuzian thought – ‘absolute memory’ (1992: 99), ‘chance’ (1992: 117)1 and the ‘unthought’ (1992: 118) – all of which correspond to the regimes of knowledge, including non-knowledge. He conceives of being as ‘life within the folds’ (1992: 123), as the reflexive activity of the subjects and the very process of constitution of the subject. Here for Deleuze being is simply postulated: he never brings the ontology of the subject into question and, on the contrary, aims to trace everywhere the appearance of the self in its multiple guises.

Working with Delueze’s concept of film, Badiou (2013) postulates that being originates not from a pure formalisation, but from a void: ruptures within knowledge compel the subject to redefine itself by means of determination. For Badiou multiplication has no other substance than presentation itself (whilst the Deleuzian multiple evokes representation in its belief in the absolute beginning). This predisposition leads to flattening of the discourse: Badiou uses mathematical symbols – math-emes – to emphasise the flatness of subject production. The void is the empty beyond which the subject has to cross in pursuit of infinity. Ultimately, the void is not characteristic of nature, but of thinking as being. Jean-Jacques Lecercle notes the difference between Deleuze and Badiou in that the latter ‘clings to a concept of a subject, albeit not the subject traditionally conceived as a unitary centre of consciousness or action. And it is ‘superseded in two ways or two directions: in the multiplicity and ontological mixture or rather “flatness” of the collective assemblage of enunciation; and in the individuation of an a-personal, a-subjective, pre-individual haecceity’ (2010: 129; emphasis added).

If for Badiou flatness is an operational matter, for Zviagintsev it is symbolic: the director conceives it in haptic terms, that is, as the quality of the visual image. In his study of Sokurov’s cinema, Szaniawski evokes Iampolski’s psychoanalytical concept of flatness, which has its origins in Foucault’s study of the Western penal system (1995), as the distortion and womb-like enfolding: ‘Sokurov’s space is often distorted and flattened. Distortions serve to better embed figures in space; frequently they are not shown as freely moving in a neutral three-dimensional volume, but – thanks to a mutual distortion of figures and their surroundings – they are inscribed into space as if onto a surface’ (Iampolski 2011: 114). Both Iampolski and Szaniawski understand flatness somewhat literally as a relation of figures to the space they occupy: ‘such treatment transforms space into a kind of womb that keeps figures wrapped in its folds’ (Iampolski 2011: 115). Szaniawski speaks of the totality of Sokurov’s films by way of enfolding: he identifies Sokurov’s interest in the ‘whole other world’, but does not account for its ontology except to mention that Sokurov’s worlds are perceptible in the open-ended, unfinished dimension of his films (2014: 12–13). I apply the notion of flatness to Zviagintsev’s film not as a category of dimensionality, but of intentionality. Flatness is not only the quality of the visual image, but also of the subjectivity that is always in relation to this image. Conversely, in his film philosophy Zviagintsev develops the idea of flatness as a particular way of presenting visuality. He articulates these ideas after the release of his third feature film Elena in his diaries and directorial notes published as a book (Zviagintsev et al. 2014). If in his previous award-winning films The Return and Banishment (2007),2 Zviagintsev (b. 1964 in Novosibirsk) explores the nature of the image in mythical and religious terms, in Elena he dwells upon the nature of visuality and the concept of life as transcendence by setting the film in a more recognisable and historically determined context whilst maintaining a high level of abstraction.

Elena ends with a shot in which the camera focuses on a nameless toddler sleeping on bed. It is the second grandson of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a woman in late middle age who lives with her rich husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). Elena and Vladimir, who were married only two years earlier, keep their corresponding families apart, and their separation is marked geographically: Elena’s feckless son, Sergei (Aleksei Rozin) and his brood live in a suburban development in a Soviet-style apartment;3 and Vladimir’s emancipated and childless daughter Katerina (Elena Liadova) has her own space somewhere in Moscow. Her home is never shown, which suggests her nomadic character, or that she occupies an abstract non-space, in contrast to the sensual world of Elena’s family.4 Elena often crosses the vistas of the capital when she visits her family in order to give them some cash – usually her own state pension, which suggests that she lives on Vladimir’s allowances. When at Sergei’s, she sometimes plays with her grandchild: he is the only male offspring who does not ignore her.5

In the quoted scene the toddler is actually lying on the bed where Elena’s husband, Vladimir, died a few days ago. The child on Vladimir’s bed symbolises continuation of life: in the absence of a direct biological male heir, Elena’s grandson replaces Vladimir’s bloodline. In fact, the child provides a solution to the characters’ predicament. First, Vladimir gets an heir; he always brings up the subject when he is with his daughter (the meaning of his name is ‘the ruler of the world’). Although Vladimir’s fortune requires an heir, he rejects Elena’s grandson Sasha (Igor’ Ogurtsov) because he has a different bloodline and also because he will squander the money. Secondly, Katerina gets total freedom; she is not interested in having children and considers biological reproduction an unethical ‘pointless affair’; her father is her only anchor in the mundane world. Graffy describes Katia as ‘tough-minded, mocking, intelligent, eloquent . . . fertile only in the area of language’ (2012). In an interview, Zviagintsev calls Katia ‘Cordelia’, the true loyal daughter (2014: 176). Thirdly, Elena’s family gets better living conditions, which also promises transition up the social ladder now that they can live in the centre of the city rather than in one of its gruesome industrial neighbourhoods. (Earlier in the film, when Sasha plays a computer game he complains about being unable to move to the next level.) Finally, Elena finds peace of mind as she no longer needs to beg Vladimir for money or worry about the well-being of Sergei’s family. It is perhaps the first time that she does not feel humiliated by her own son and her own husband, allegiances between whom she is constantly compelled to navigate. However, the solution is only an illusion because the viewer knows that the space for the child was freed by Elena herself: she killed Vladimir by secretly mixing Viagra into the medicine which he had to take while recovering from a heart attack (here the materiality of being – Elena – takes over metaphysics – Vladimir). The film, hence, presents a set of ethical problems: corruption by power and wealth, and the struggle between instincts and social norms. While signposting these conflicts, Zviagintsev refuses to provide a determinate explanatory system: many aspects of Elena’s and Vladimir’s arrangement remain unclear, similarly the occupations of Katia and Sergei are never disclosed (see the discussion of Katia’s possible occupation below). The director shifts his attention from the portrayal of the social context to the exploration of the visual plane of the film: causality turns into a symbolic correlation. In fact, in his published diaries Zviagintsev refers to the characters as ‘figures’, or ‘symbolic subjects’ [figury, liudi-smysly] (2014: 83). The director goes as far as to reject the ‘authenticity’ [podlinnost’] of his characters in favour of ‘social constructs’ [sotsial’nye obobshcheniia] (2014: 83), thus substantiating the deployment of the symbolic mode.

In Elena the camera confuses the spectator by portraying a happy child in a new home and also presenting him as a symbolic murderer of his step-grandfather. The camera turns the spectators into the judge of what is going on by providing a view from above. It is the only time this type of shot is used in the film – the majority are close-ups and mid-range shots, documenting the actions of the characters and surveying the interiors of their living spaces. The so-called ‘god shot’ secures the position of the spectator as a distanced, uninvolved atomiser of social conflict. Framed as a murder mystery, Elena, in fact, supplies the viewer with a political and philosophical critique of the Putin era. The effect is achieved thanks to the alienating (estrangement) position of the camera. A baby in a new house is a ubiquitous and even somewhat banal metaphor of a new generation supplanting an old one, and of how new blood is injected into a decaying family.6 However, by choosing the god shot the director enables the spectator to observe not only the toddler, but also the bed on which he is lying, hence the position of the camera reveals the director’s intentionality. This bed is one of the key elements of interior décor in Zviagintsev’s film. It first appears at the very beginning when Elena comes to Vladimir’s bedroom to wake him in the morning, and the camera captures a glimpse of a black and white bedspread while Elena draws the curtains to let in bleak late winter light. The bed is one of the key tropes in Zviagintsev’s oeuvre. For example, in The Return the bed in which the father sleeps is compared with the ceremonial pedestal on which the body of the dead Christ was rested. In Banishment, the bed is a locus of marital life as well as murder/suicide. So it is to this black and white bedspread that the spectator’s attention is drawn to at the end of Elena. Made of some luxurious fabric, the bedspread features black background against which a silver-white pattern is picked up. The bedspread is laid out perfectly flat, enabling the spectator to appreciate the abstract, symmetrical pattern in the form of an equilateral cross, with its four arms bent at 90 degrees, a pattern better known as the swastika. The unexpected introduction of the swastika suggests a discursive rupture, or metaphysical intermittency, in Elena’s overall monde atone, a type of being that Andrew Gibson, in his discussion of the concept of reason in Badiou’s philosophy, defines as ‘inertia, obscurity, flatness, nondescript, eventless mundanity, non-value’ (2012: 54).7

The swastika vibrates as a mystical ornament, which has a complex and troublesome history in European and world culture. A symmetrical image, positioned somewhere between a star and a spiral, the swastika and its variations have been found by archaeologists everywhere in the world, suggesting that it is a global symbol of rebirth. The swastika remains widely used in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism, primarily as a tantric symbol that invokes Lakshmi, the Hindu goddess of prosperity and auspiciousness – the state the film’s characters aspire to attain. The word itself comes from the Sanskrit ‘svastika’ (‘su’ means ‘good’, ‘asti’ means ‘it is’). The symbol was in common use in Russian folk and religious culture as a symbol of Perun, the highest god of the pantheon and the god of thunder and lightning in Slavic cultures. The right-facing swastika stands for light, life, clarity and prosperity; the left-facing, for darkness, evil and death. In the film the primary function of the swastika is to reveal the structure of the image, and, generally, the aesthetic form: the flatness of the image is in contrast to the operations of signification enabled by it. In the use of the swastika the director demonstrates the transition from symbolic folds to discursive flatness. The four legs of the swastika symbolise the merger of four different paradigms of knowledge, namely, folklore, mythology, occultism and ideology. The swastika is a meta-symbol because it brings together and consolidates meaning thanks to its ability to embody multiple ideas at the same time.8

In European history, the swastika came to stand for Nazi atrocities. Its preceding connotation as a symbol of happiness and good luck was obliterated by the meanings it acquired in the 1930s and 1940s. The symbol epitomises a sudden and irreversible rupture in cultural tradition because of the political discourse about fascism. This notion of sudden rupture is given in the film in the form of Vladimir’s heart attack, which happens unexpectedly while he is exercising in the swimming pool. In his diaries Zviagintsev employs the notion of rupture/death as a metaphor for the end of the colonial regime (2014: 60). As a symbol, the swastika accounts for Elena’s transition from carer to murderess, or to super-being if considered from the perspective of her family. The prohibition on the use of the swastika in some countries also means that the symbol’s role is to articulate the unrepresentable, the tabooed. In this regard, in the symbolic mode, the function of the image is that of alienation and distancing of the spectator from the image and the production of non-knowledge. This contradicts the original intention of the Nazi symbol, which was to transform the alienation of the masses into self-knowledge. In Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934) the mass emerges as a Volk because the swastika is used to establish a sense of national identity and self-celebration. In terms of Cultural Studies, the swastika accentuates Zviagintsev’s views on contemporary Russia: survival strategies might include a physical elimination of the other [Magistral’naia ideia novogo vremeni – ‘vyzhivanie, spasenie sebia liuboi tsenoi’] (2014: 55).

The process of signification and ascribing knowledge is compared with rituals and objects used to ascribe meaning. For example, the bedspread itself stands for the concepts of faith and death as conceived in the usage of the Russian word for ‘bedspread’ – ‘pokryvalo’ – which additionally conveys the meaning of ‘altar cloth’ as well as ‘shroud’, hence presenting the bed as both tomb and altar, and the apartment as both a shrine and a church. Similarly, the child is an allusion to the famous statement by Dostoevskii in which he challenged revolutionary social reform and its negative impact on the child/beauty: here the child turns into the ultimate goal of social evolution which bears no compassion, or as Zviagintsev states it: ‘children validate anything’ [vse opravdanie v detiakh] (2014: 117). By extension, Elena’s murder of Vladimir should be interpreted as a sacrificial act in order to glorify new life and continuity.9 It is important to remember that Elena nursed Vladimir back to life ten years earlier when he was hospitalised for the first time. She is a life-giving agent and also a ruthless murderer who is blinded by her loyalty to her son and his family – a mystic. Similarly, the bond between Elena and her youngest grandson can be interpreted as either unconditional love for each other, or as complete domination. Even the weather is indeterminate: it can be either autumn or spring. The ‘reversibility’ of the seasons – and of the other situations and themes – has a specific emphasis: by making the markers of meaning transferable in their function, Zviagintsev detracts the attention of the spectator from the specific meaning of the sign towards its more general, abstract connotation, and so one shifts from semiology to semiotics.10 The director hence shifts the events to an even higher abstract level, and additionally he delegates the process of signification to the spectators, who make sense of what they see depending on intentionality. In other words, Zviagintsev flattens the symbolic folds (metaphors) in order to achieve a high degree of abstraction in the image construction (the symbolic mode).

Such an aesthetic and philosophical predisposition is manifested in the work of the camera. In his diary, Zviagintsev reveals that, in the analysis of what he calls Elena’s ‘personal apocalypse’, he gives preference to the use of the camera – what he calls ‘special optics’ – rather than actors and extras (2014: 120). The dominant technique in Elena is focus-through, or racking focus – a change of the field in focus, taking the viewer from one object to another that was previously out of focus, or, from the technical point of view, changing the focus of the lens during the shot. This technique supplies a change in focus and perspective as is evident in the very first scene in the film. It shows a group of trees outside an apartment block. The focus is on the leafless branches and the bark of the trees, which appear absolutely lifeless.11 The tree represents family life, as a tree of generations. Then the focus changes and reveals that what initially appeared as a dark smudge in the background is actually a bird in the tree. It is a crow that produces a harsh caw which sets the macabre mood for the rest of the film. The crow has been traditionally used as a bad omen and a symbol of death; however, it is also an archetype of the trickster, epitomising intelligence, audaciousness and mischief.12 So the crow symbolises the contradictions of knowledge (the anti-representational system) rather than the binarism of meaning (representational system).

In this scene, the change in focus provides a change in perspective which does not necessarily entail a linear reading, but rather a punctuated form of discourse whereby the movement of the camera and change in perspective can be reversed and a new juxtaposition actualised (as happens at the end of the film when the imagery of life/death is reversed). For Zviagintsev, these elements are not charged as either negative or positive. Their purpose is not to enforce a (moral) hierarchy, or Deleuzian Order, but to demonstrate their insuperable difference which, in fact, produces in a subject not tension but motion, hence the reference of the black-and-white bedspread is not only to the rituals of rebirth and transformation, but also to the nature of cinema with its game of shadows on the screen, as a series of projectiles. Here the bedspread and the screen emerge as loci for flattening of discourse in the symbolic mode whereby flattening functions as a manner of visionary intentionality.13 The screen is one of the chief modes of signification and flattening. In the sections below I demonstrate how the energies of the symbolic mode are released thanks to the flattened, abstracted notions utilised in the film.

In Elena the characters’ apartments are their habitus; the similarity is in the use of the (flat) screen of television sets which suggest the telepresence of a higher authority.14 Vladimir and Elena have separate bedrooms and each of them watches their own selection of programmes in solitude. (There seems to be a television set in each room in Sergei’s apartment, not all of those have a flat screen which is one of the markers of their lower level of consumption.) Graffy describes their viewing habits as follows:

While Elena is preparing breakfast she watches programmes about food and healthy living, but she turns them off before Vladimir sits down at the table. His own taste runs to sports broadcasts, athletics and football, programmes to which he falls asleep while lying in bed. After he is dead Elena allows herself the luxury of watching while she eats, a report on a ‘konkurs kolbasy’, a competition to find the best sausage. It is surely part of her punishment that at the end Sergei has decided what they are to watch and Elena’s entire family sit in front of the screen in a harsh parody of family happiness. (2012)

‘The sausage competition’ is a reference to the late Soviet food shortages when such a basic brand of sausage as ‘doktorskaia’ was considered a delicacy. Through this reference the director actualises the ‘retro-gaze’ of Elena and the generation she represents. This televised performance is a nostalgic reincarnation of the past which is apolitical as well as ahistorical because ‘revived or retrofitted forms bring with them no history’ (Oushakine 2007: 453). Elena engages in the retrospective consideration from the comfort of her beautiful home where cappuccinos and baguettes have replaced the ‘doktorskaia’ sausage. In doing so, she actualises one of the functions of nostalgic renditions which is a response to a ‘striving for a recognized shape, for a set of automatized perceptions, and for a common repertoire of cultural references’ (Oushakine 2007: 482). The reference enables a construction of a rhetorical field in which, following the dynamic of the symbolic mode, signification is dispersed across a broad range of perceptions borrowed from the cultural past (the folds) and appropriated irrespectively of their historical connotations (the flatness).

In addition to television screens, Elena demonstrates the screen of the game console that both Sasha and Sergei make use of during Elena’s visits. It is remarkable that in neither of the apartments do the families employ computers as a site of work. This is in stark contrast to the techno-cultural point Zviagintsev makes in the scene when Elena does some shopping in a local store. She is on her way to Sergei’s home to deliver more cash. In the store she buys food and she wishes to use a credit card to pay for her groceries; the shop assistant who is serving her – a middle-aged lady with a strong regional accent – calls her colleague – a much younger woman – to complete the transaction because it is clear that she does not know how to use the credit card reader (since she has always dealt with cash). In Cultural Studies terms, this scene helps the director to represent social differences: the divide lies not along the lines of gender, age or education, but rather income, thus suggesting a completely new class structure in Russia that is not based on the binary antagonisms of the Soviet period, but on a more transient system of capital circulation of the Putin era.

In the same category of interactive screens are the screens of the monitors in the hospital where Vladimir is treated after the heart attack. Technologically advanced and elaborate, they represent the penetrating gaze of the camera and its failure to reveal the workings of Vladimir’s inner self. In its reference to radiography, Elena establishes a connection with early cultural practices when at the end of the nineteenth century cinema and X-rays were often conflated because of their capacity to expand visual horizons.15 They were part of the ray/vision mania of the time, which helped the body to emerge as a transparent fragment intermixed with other forms of cultural exchange and of inscribing value. These function as a way of flattening, abstracting discourse which I also see in operation in Fedorchenko’s Silent Souls where such flattening is construed in terms of modelling.

The idea of the penetrating gaze of the camera – film as a means to expand the horizon of vision and as an indication of non-knowledge – is developed further in the imagery of the (wind-)screen of a moving vehicle. In this category one finds various windscreens and windows in cars, buses and trains which the director makes elaborate use of when showing the characters moving from one place to another. In some instances, the only reason for the characters to be shown on their journey somewhere seems to be the opportunity to engage with the surface of the screen. For example, one day Vladimir drives to the gym and he nonchalantly hops channels on his radio, emitting a bizarre combination of music from all over the world. On his way he goes past a group of guest workers in fluorescent uniforms. The camera looks at the immigrants from inside the Audi, noting the unsympathetic look on Vladimir’s face reflected in the glass. In the counter-shot, the camera looks at Vladimir from outside the car, capturing reflections of the workers in the windscreen. As the car moves away, the reflected image changes; it now shows a reflection of a decorative panel on the house, which, in its mirrored, inverted form, appears like Arabic script. The windscreen is hence used as a means to project Vladimir’s anxieties about immigration and the controlling gaze of someone who is in charge of the vehicle.

Zviagintsev generally uses screens as a means to introduce a parallel mode of cinematic presentation as in Banishment where the windscreen of the protagonist’s car becomes a vehicle for evoking memory, trauma and loneliness. Aleksandr (Konstantin Lavronenko) returns to the city after his wife Vera (Maria Bonnevie) dies during an abortion that he had organised against her will. He does not know yet that she has killed herself by taking an overdose of sleeping pills. As Aleksandr suspects her of infidelity – the main reason why he wanted to get rid of the child – he comes back in order to avenge himself on the man, Robert (Dmitrii Ul’ianov), who he believes was his wife’s lover. Robert is out when Aleksandr arrives, so Aleksandr is compelled to wait for his nemesis in the car parked outside the house. While waiting Aleksandr falls asleep; the camera becomes mobile and moves around the car showing it from different angles. In one continuous take the camera moves almost 360 degrees around the car, showing what is in the background while maintaining focus on the car and Aleksandr’s face. Towards the end of the scene the camera shows the character’s face: Aleksandr is sleeping peacefully inside the car with the side window drawn up; the camera catches the reflection in the glass – the slow movement of the branches of a large tree. The scene ends on a tranquil note and the film continues to the next scene. The spectator, however, is left wondering about the tree: Aleksandr parked his car outside Robert’s house in an urban area with no vegetation visible anywhere. In the circular movement around the car, the camera confirms that there are no trees in the street and hence no such reflection is possible. In this scene Zviagintsev resorts to presenting rather than withholding as he does in The Return: the tree acquires a particular meaning not as an established symbol of life but, in the symbolic mode, as an apparatus of thinking, as imprint of our thought, as a trace of the rupture in discourse, whereby the void is perceptible between the visible and the divine, between knowledge and non-knowledge, between subjectivity and signification. Although Zviagintsev shows a reflection of a tree, he does so in the anti-representational mode since there is no object to induce the reflection – the image as pure immanence – and the reference is not to some ‘objective reality’, but to the realm of human signification (which can be interpreted as a dream, hallucination, aberration, incongruity, interference, etc.). To reiterate, here the purpose of the reflection is not to suggest representation, but to capture the very process of thinking in referential terms. This event catapults the story in Banishment to a different level of abstraction whereby the forces of the symbolic mode provide a different consideration of the material.

Similarly, Elena employs screens as a locus and mode of meaningmaking and shifts from the use of screens as symbols of societal divisions, whereby the screens are not dividers but rather emblems of difference, to the use of screens as projectiles and trajectories in the transformation of subjectivity (in Balabanov’s Morphine screens are used to construct posthumous subjectivity operating in the symbolic mode). Every morning Elena combs her hair in front of an elaborate three-piece vanity mirror which reflects the blasé expression on her face. She is content with her marriage, or rather her ‘arrangement’ with Vladimir (Graffy 2012), which provides her with financial security in exchange for her care as a nurse, cook and sexual partner. By contrast, Katia epitomises a new type of woman who is independent – thanks to her father’s money – and, according to her father, spends most of her time enjoying herself. Her refusal to have children is a sign of her rejection of the patriarchal order. Her language use and wit suggest that she is very well-educated and perhaps has an interesting job, or at least an occupation. In fact, in an earlier version of the script and in Zviagintsev’s diary the character of Katia is conceived in relation to a particular space in Moscow, the so-called Art-Play, an innovative exhibition centre where, for example, the Moscow Biennale of Contemporary Art takes place: ‘Katia’s space is a cold room in what used to be a mill, now re-purposed to house exhibitions of contemporary art’ (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 96). Later on Zviagintsev decides to make Katia a translator: in a scene that was eventually cut, Katia is shown at a film screening in Art-Play where she delivers a translation of a film about ?i?ek (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 114).

One morning Elena conceives Vladimir’s murder while sitting in front of the mirror, in complete silence as if the world has come to a halt. She adjusts her hair, making sure it looks the same as ever, and stares in the mirror and then away from it, as if inviting a higher authority to intervene. One panel of the mirror is not straight and so it shows Elena’s face sideways, splitting her reflected image into two. To be precise, one of the images is her profile and the other a three-quarter image. In Russian pictorial tradition derived from Byzantium, the profile was reserved for the representation of Satan while the three-quarter image was used to represent sinners (Antonov and Maizul 2014: 44). (This is one of many references to Dostoevskii’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan suffers from a split personality and encounters his Doppelgänger. This allusion frames Elena as a philosophical investigation into the origins of evil; just like Dostoevskii in his novel, Zviagintsev compels the spectator to enquire about what and who actually kills Vladimir.) Through racking focus, the camera oscillates between different images of Elena: her sitting in front of the mirror and the two reflected images. The triadic structure of Elena’s image implicates her transitory position between the two families and the two worlds and her failure to build a world of her own independently from anyone else. This is a transitory position between knowledge and non-knowledge.16 A similar device is used in the scene in which Elena goes to church to light a candle and her face appears against the wall of icons. This image highlights the monstrosity of Elena’s subjectivity as illuminated by the imagery of hell: behind her an image of the devil with a baby on his lap is visible. In his diaries, Zviagintsev describes this scene/ concept in almost Nietzschean terms as a monster appearing as a comely person – the use of the Russian ‘blagoobraznyi’ containing the word ‘image’ is noteworthy – who, in church, gazes at his own idols (2014: 56).17 Elena’s visit to the church is another reference to The Brothers Karamazov in which the devil speaks about his wish to turn into a female merchant [kupchikha] lighting candles in the cathedral.

Mirrors and screens belong to the semantic group of windows utilised frequently in the film. Elena opens with a shot filmed through the window in Vladimir’s apartment: the black contours of the tree and the slow pace of the camera draw the viewer’s attention to the aesthetic form:18 the opening scene suggests that the film is not just a story, but an artistic manifesto or, as the film cinematographer puts it: ‘the characters are “compelling” not because they “look like” real life but because they have undergone the process of “aesthetisation”’ (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 138), or what I call in this study moving towards the symbolic mode; in other words, presenting them in ways that invite the construction of meaning rather than dictating it.19 The image of the tree is a pencil drawing whilst the window in the apartment is a frame of a painting:20 Zviagintsev is consistent in his preoccupation with the painterly qualities of his films and he uses windows to provide framed portraits of his characters – they eschew identities to emerge as ideas, subjectivities. By doing so, he distances them from the materiality of being as they become recollections and glimpses of beings long vanished – the posthumous subjectivity. In the scene when Katia visits her father in the hospital she appears standing in front of the window: the bright light obscures her features, turning her into a ghostly apparition, and emphasising her other-worldliness. Windows do, indeed, function as portals into other worlds: after the murder Elena travels by train; when the train suddenly stops she looks out of the window and sees a horse that has been knocked down by the train. In the book of Revelation one finds a similar description of an apocalyptic event: ‘I looked up and saw a white horse. Its rider carried a bow, and a crown was placed on his head. He rode out to win many battles and gain the victory’ (Revelation 6:2). Throughout history this has been interpreted as a passage referring to the Antichrist, and in the film the image of the white horse is used as a symbol of the arrival of the apocalypse. The evil is not personalised – this would be the job of representation – but rather abstracted and dispersed across the whole range of characters, creating a complex subjectivity yearning to decipher its own ethical failure. In pictorial terms, as in Vasnetsov’s image of the apocalypse that Elena cites, the mystery of the apocalypse is not in the visible plane – the four horsemen and the corpses in the foreground – but in the passions of the invisible world which are hinted at in the figures appearing in the background. The horsemen in Vasnetsov’s painting (1887) are presented as a group; however, the composition suggests that they appear as individual patterns rather than as a representational whole. This is comparable with Matisse’s painting with its flattened folds of meaning which I discuss below. It is what the image both reveals and conceals that is paramount to the construction of subjectivity in the symbolic mode; hence, below I pay special attention to the mechanisms of such pictorial revelation/concealment as a form of doubling/flattening of the discourse.

The strategy of simultaneous revealing and concealing is evident in the imagery of decorative panels and retractable room partitions in Vladimir’s apartment. Graffy describes the interior of Vladimir’s apartment as ‘cool, sterile’ (2012), which, in my view, symbolises his heirless, infertile family. Indeed, there are very few objects in the apartment that could interrupt the penetrating, razor-sharp gaze of the camera. The austere interior of the apartment is evoked in the interiors of Vladimir’s gym, his lawyer’s office and even the funeral parlour. The world of the businessman is completely devoid of clutter where even books have a pragmatic purpose (Elena consults a medical encyclopaedia when contemplating Vladimir’s murder). The decluttered atmosphere of Vladimir’s world is contrasted to the sensuality of Sergei’s home where objects are piled on top of each other, creating a chaos of textures, colours and shapes. Mikhail Krichman, the cinematographer, notes that they used ‘abstract’ [abstraktnye] colour schemes for each scene as well as for costumes, interiors and even patterns on wallpaper so that the world of the film can be conceived in terms of its colour palette, patterns and textures and reveal its rhythmic structure (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 133).21 However, just like Vladimir, Sergei and the rest of his family – perhaps with the exception of his wife who, like Elena, is compelled to function in an alien environment – are incapable of affection as their material interests prevail. The ‘cool, sterile’ atmosphere is achieved thanks to the specific design of Vladimir’s apartment: decorative panels are used to conceal household objects. These panels feature a pattern that imitates the structure of the wood (perhaps real wood was used creatively to reveal its beautiful texture): nature appears in its processed, transformed form, more like a still-life than an actual display, more an abstraction than an actuality.

The flatness of the screens emphasises the flatness of discourse whereby the role of the characters is to participate in rituals, which seems to have no other purpose than waiting.22 Vladimir awaits his destiny peacefully: in most of the scenes he is shown lying on a bed, whether at home or in the hospital, or occupying other horizontal positions (swimming, lying in the coffin), which rhymes with the position/role of the child in the final scene. Vladimir’s position is contrasted to the frantic verticality of Sergei’s family: they live in a Soviet high-rise; they sit on stools with their backs straightened; his wife climbs on chairs to reach vodka from the kitchen shelf and she literally moves out of the shot and only her legs remain visible, and so on. In depicting Sergei’s family, the camera uses the technique of fragmentation, often dissecting the bodies of the characters whilst Vladimir and Katia are shown as wholesome subjects whose being is suspended (Katia appears as an apparition – once Vladimir exclaims ‘I can’t see you!’ – and in Vladimir’s death).23 Vladimir’s spacious apartment invites long uninterrupted shots that accentuate the abundance of air and light; Sergei’s cramped apartment disables the free movement of the camera between rooms: its movement is truncated, suggesting nervous interruptions of space and the suffocating agony of its occupants.24 The structure of the space compels a specific work of the camera which delays presentation – as Krichman puts it ‘the camera is always delaying’ [kamera vse vremia medlit] – thus deferring construction of meaning, which occurs not only during sequences but also in the gaps between them: the flattening of discourse enables our perception of such gaps/ruptures. Krichman also compares the characters with dancers in a Matisse painting: the characters are ornaments in the general construction of space,25 with its ambiguities and play between the illusion of depth and acknowledgement of the flatness of the canvas/screen.

Literary and painterly allusions26 indicate that the director requires that the attention of the spectator should continuously oscillate between the events shown and historical events, between the work of perception and the work of memory. This bifocal exercise of signification is mirrored in the use of the camera that slowly changes focus in order to provide the spectator with a temporal and semiotic gap in the process of signification. The racking focus of the camera is noticeable when contrasted to the frequent use of the static camera. The only time when the camera gets loose is in the scene of the gang attack when hand-held devices were used to depict Sasha’s anger and violence.27 The logic of flatness applies to the characters’ faces as well: Krichman speaks of their faces as masks, in other words, as surfaces.28 He notes that only three characters have faces that change in the film – Elena, Katia and Vladimir – because they belong to ‘the same metaphysical space’ (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 141). Indeed, when Elena burns Vladimir’s will her face changes from being grave [seroe] to being diabolic. Her duality is signposted from the very beginning in that full-face she has features of a common woman whereas her profile is one of a Greek goddess. Similarly, Krichman compares Vladimir’s profile with that of Caesar (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 142).29 Zviagintsev sees a parallel between the work of the film and the work of the X-ray machine in that they reveal invisible, unseen images (2014:174).

In their special attention to surfaces and patterns, Zviagintsev and Krichman elucidate a particular film philosophy that Krichman calls ‘visualisation’, or transference of meaning with the help of the symbolic mode: ‘the filmic material does not simply inform or copy . By using different images that are not always linked to the direct content, it can reveal and enhance the meaning of what is being said. To let the meaning be seen does not mean to illustrate or copy’ (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 144). Here the symbolic mode instantiates a new plane of meaning, a surface/screen on which meaning is inscribed, which, while alluding to the materiality of being, is elusive in its metaphysical construction. Cinematically, while the camera looks in both directions, it glides above these surfaces and in doing so creates meaning; it is in the gap between surfaces that the meaning is actualised. Hence, Krichman and Zviagintsev discuss non-representational strategies which they call ‘visualisation’. Zviagintsev compares film with a ‘magical mirror’ that enables a two-directional mode of operation: while viewers watch films, the films watch the viewers (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 170). For him, film offers both knowledge and non-knowledge – categories that we dwell on in Chapter 5. The latter – a more powerful stance, according to the director – provides ‘freedom and emptiness’, that is, a temporal lack of signification, a void of meaning to be filled in the process of watching (2014: 178). Thus, Zviagintsev completes the process of flattening of the folds (representations), and begins to operate on the level of visualisation, or constructs that can be determined as a relationship between the world and the event that I analyse in Chapter 6.



1. See Chapter 6 on Serebrennikov’s St George’s Day for an analysis of such a predisposition.
2. The films received multiple international awards, including the Grand Prix at the Venice Film Festival in 2003 and the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2007. In 2014, his fourth film Leviathan received the Best Script Award at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Oscars.
3. The dystopian element of Elena has to do with the perceived threat of the social underclass emanating from the urban sprawls: note a similar stance expressed by Vladimir Sorokin in relation to his film The Target discussed in Chapter 12. The suburbs [spal’nye raiony] are an architectural allegory for the new underclasses.
4. In Cultural Studies terms, this is a contrast between the intelligentsia and the working classes.
5. Some critics noted Elena was filmed from the conservative perspective, that is, as representing the interests of the ruling class (e.g., Kuvshinova 2011b).
6. For a discussion of Russian cinema and the concept of family and filial relations, see Goscilo and Hashamova (2010).
7. Zviagintsev’s use of the swastika is similar to that I find in the art of Sigmar Polke: simultaneously inquisitive and ironic.
8. This principle of compressing space is used in Veledinskii’s Alive (Chapter 9), where people and ghosts occupy the same place.
9. Denis Gorelov defined the conflict in Elena as a return to pre-Christian morality whereby marital links are sacrificed for the sake of the bloodline (2011).
10. In terms of the weather, the film shows not spring or autumn, but rather a season of rapid change; and the film does not distinguish between love or control, but rather focuses on a nexus of authority.
11. The image of the tree plays an important role in Khomeriki’s A Tale About Darkness (see Chapter 5).
12. On trickster in film, see Bassil-Morozow (2012); as an archetype in Russian culture, see Lipovetsky (2010).
13. Vitalii Manskii, an acclaimed Russian documentary film-maker, described the visual quality of Elena as ‘staged’ and ‘like a fairy-tale’ (Manskii 2011).
14. See Chapter 12 on the use of television shows in Zel’dovich’s The Target.
15. See Chapter 2 on the use of film image and X-ray image in Proshkin’s film.
16. In Balabanov’s Morphine discussed in Chapter 3, such a triangulation is used to contrast different types of knowledge.
17. [Monstr v oblike blagoobraznogo cheloveka, stoiashchii v poze greshnika pered litsom svoikh idolov v khrame, – chem ne obraz kontsa vremen?]
18. I am grateful to Andrei Shcherbenok for this idea.
19. [Estetizatsiia chrezvychaino vazhna. Ty mozhesh govorit’ o besformennom, no pri etom ty ne mozhesh byt’ besformennym sam. Ty mozhesh’ govorit’ o bessmyslii, no obiazan govorit’ chetko].
20. Sokurov’s interest in the pictorial nature of the film image is well-documented (Chapter 1).
21. [mir . . . fil’ma propisyvaetsia na predmet ego sozvuchnosti – tsvetovoi, fakturnoi].
22. Waiting is a common motif in the films discussed in this book. It epitomises being in apocalyptic times when waiting is the only action characters can effectively perform as it structures their subjectivity.
23. Compare with the use of the pornographic aesthetic in Khomeriki’s A Tale About Darkness (Chapter 5).
24. Krichman calls it ‘sinkopicheskii ritm’ (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 135).
25. [Kak i v ego ‘Tanste’, u nas geroi tozhe resheny ornamental’no, kak chast’ inter’era . . . u kazhdogo geroia . . . svoia statichnaia stsenka-pattern] (Zviagintsev et al. 2014: 137).
26. For example, Vladimir evokes the infamous Alena Ivanovna from Dostoevskii’s Crime and Punishment, a suspicious old pawnbroker who hoards money and is merciless to her patrons. This allusion provides us with the ‘inverted’ gender position in the film whereby the archaic law is represented by the male subject. In fact, Vladimir’s failure to produce the will stands for the lack of the written law which unleashes the struggle for power in the clan. The comparison with Dostoevskii’s novel underscores the main message of Elena – crime without retribution.
27. The attack takes place among apple trees, suggesting a reinterpretation of original sin as well as signposting Sasha’s habitus: the forest. In this regard, he is the new ‘cave man’ whose only function is aggression: he plays violent computer games and beats up young men.
28. Compare with the use of masks and surfaces in Zel’dovich’s The Target (Chapter 12).
29. Gorelov (2011) compares Elena with Greek tragedies such as Sophocles’ Antigone.


Vlad Strukov