Naturalism lives. If Zola were a Russian in Russia today, he might have written Elena. Zola being absent, the director Andrei Zvyagintsev has written this screenplay with Oleg Negin, looking at lives with that combination of candor and regret that marks the best naturalist work. This approach in itself is a novelty in Russian films.
Another is the milieu. The history of naturalism is closely woven with suffering, with the impulse to inform the disregarding world of social or economic oppression. But Elena, set in contemporary Russia, is about the bourgeoisie, about the lives of those with plenty of money and of others who are close to it. So from Russia comes a film that might have come from New Jersey.
Elena and Vladimir are in their sixties, married, each for the second time. He is retired and wealthy. She, a former nurse who met him when he was sick ten years ago, is not herself rich. He has a daughter, Katya, a hedonist (as he calls her) who simply lives as she pleases with money from father. Elena has a married son, Sergey, with two children, who would like to live off Vladimir and gets enough money from him through his mother that he can loaf around. Directly and less so, both Katya, Vladimir’s daughter, and Sergey, Elena’s son, do nothing because of Vladimir’s money.
The first half of the film puts all these lives before us in their stasis. It opens with a shot through wintry branches of a window where lights come on. Elena wakes, then wakes Vladimir in his room. The apartment is large, with multiple television sets, and a point is made of Vladimir’s electric shaver. At breakfast, in response to his question, Elena tells him that she is going to visit Sergey today. His funding of Sergey thus comes up, along with his objections. She wants money so that Sasha, her grandson, can go to university and avoid the army. Disconsolate, Vladimir says he will think about it.
Elena goes to visit Sergey, and the film details the arduous trip—train, tram, bus, a path through a wood to a distant part of the city (Moscow?). At first we wonder why the director has insisted on these details until we see that this is what the film is—an anatomy of the ways some lives are being lived, that the living of them is the point of the picture.
The visit to Sergey and family is pretty much what we would expect, especially since Elena brings money. What we do not expect is a heart attack. Vladimir visits his high-class gym and has an attack in the pool. Elena goes to a church and buys candles to put before an altar. Then she informs Katya, the daughter, who rather reluctantly goes to the hospital. The scene between her and her father is a gem: the daughter who superficially resents him because, she says, he always cared more for money than for her; the father who knows why she thinks so but adores her. Levels of feeling are subtly dissected.
Soon Vladimir is sent home in the care of Elena, the former nurse. Soon, too, he tells her that he is going to make a will that takes care of her but that gives most of his money to Katya. (Why this man has not already made a will is an unanswered question.) He scribbles some notes for his lawyer who is coming tomorrow. When she hears this, even though she has just been to a church for him, Elena, who is in charge of his pills, overdoses him. She burns his notes. His estate is then settled under Russian law, which benefits Elena.
We see the results of this windfall for her and Sergey. The film ends with the shot that opened it, outside the apartment window through wintry branches. Lives will go on in this place, in the same middleclass, padded, quasi-paralyzed way we have seen for all of them, drenched with television gab that seems to represent it. Yes, a crime has been committed, but Elena almost asks for our sympathy and understanding—a crime for her grandson’s sake. (Besides, her daughter-in-law is pregnant again.)
What Zvyagintsev may not have intended but what strikes us is that all the turbulence and oppression of the Soviet days have led to commonplace consumerist lives. Obviously there is no doubt that this is a great physical and libertarian improvement for at least some Russians. But is this the life toward which everything has been meant to move? Is Zvyagintsev deploring a goal of minor satisfactions (worth a quiet murder) or is this a murmured funeral ode for red-flag aspiration?
The film flows along with an almost ruthless smoothness. Nadezhda Markina gives Elena the thoroughness that warrants all her actions, and Andrey Smirnov’s Vladimir is exactly the narrow man of sudden small depths that he need be. Yelena Lyadova as the more-than-hedonist Katya is excellent.
CHILDREN ACTORS again, but otherwise. Recently we have had leading performances by children—in Michael and The Kid With a Bike—that extend the long list of fine performances by children in film history. Now the Japanese writer-director Hirokazu Kore-eda, already known for his work with children, adds to the dazzle. Instead of giving us one or two children acting impressively, his new film I Wish is a work in which children are the film. Numerous adults, all of them good actors, move through I Wish, but the film belongs to the children. This is not by any means the first time this has been done—in several countries—but it is captivating. The two boys and their friends who are the center of things create the world in which they live.
The setting, chiefly, is the island of Kyushu. Koichi, played by twelve-year-old Koki Maeda, lives with his mother and grandparents in the south. His younger brother Ryu, played by Koki’s actual brother Ohshirô, lives with his father in the north. The parents have been divorced about six months, and the boys miss each other.
Kore-eda follows them in their separate lives with their friends, their games and chatter and fantasies. The picture teems with their imaginations, engaging because they are entirely believable, even their food likes and dislikes. No patent attempt is made to charm us: we simply enter lives.
Both brothers are individually excited about a coming event: the opening of a bullet-train service that will pass nearby. They are further agog with a belief that anyone who watches the two opposite-bound bullet trains pass each other and makes a wish while he watches will have his wish granted. The brothers and a total of five friends make plans to witness such a passage and make wishes there.
They invent a way to cut school for their expedition. All seven watch and wish. (Kore-eda transfigures the crucial moment with a montage of items from the boys’ memories.) Afterward the two brothers find out that they have shared a wish—about their parents.
The story and the occasional incidents with adults are sufficient to keep the film mobile. But fundamentally what holds us is the beings of the children—not cuteness, though all of them are unaffectedly appealing, and the girls are lovely. Energy. Their energy transfixes. Every adult, parent or not, is aware of the unbelievable energy in children. They flame with it. For instance, these children hardly ever walk, they run. The film is full of running, even when a boy is carrying three bags. When they come to a long flight of steps they run up, even if there is an escalator next to it. They are not showing off or exercising, that is the way they are, and their physicality underlies their imaginations.
None of this is new, nor does Kore-eda think so. Apparently he just loves it and wanted to make a film about it. He has made one that transforms the commonplace into the extraordinary.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic. This article appeared in the June 7, 2012 issue of the magazine.