Archive for November 8th, 2011

Elena is the third feature film by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. He came to prominence with his startling debut The Return, an enigmatic, visually striking film about a family road trip. His reputation was sealed with an assured sophomore effort entitled The Banishment (you can see he has a penchant for mysterious titles) and whispers of an heir to Tarkovsky were heard. So Elena comes with a hefty set of expectations attached.

This parable-like tale concerns Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a steely housewife, caught between her rich husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and layabout son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). Elena used to care for Vladimir, but has now been married to him for 10 years. The couple live in a luxurious city apartment, while Sergey and his family live in poverty in a small deadbeat town. The director effectively juxtaposes these two opposing existences, perhaps making a point about the gap between the wealthy and the poor in modern day Russia.

Sergey urges his mother to acquire money from Vladimir, his stepfather, in order to pay for his obnoxious son to go to uni. Vladimir, a grumpy, stingy man, balks at Sergey’s laziness and refuses to cave in to the demands, not even to sate his wife. Elena is caught between two stubborn men, and when Vladimir starts to fall ill, she faces a dilemma about whose side she is going to take. Added into the mix is Vladimir’s estranged, hedonistic daughter Katerina (a sharp-eyed Yelena Lyadova).

The performances are routinely impressive, Markina especially working with a difficult, nuanced portrayal of loyalty and guilt. The film as a whole feels very enigmatic, very unshowy. At various points there are references to religion, and morality seems to be the major theme of the film. Aesthetically and thematically I would say this this is weaker than Zvyagintsev’s previous two films; the bleached out, expressive landscapes have been replaced with a more banal urban look. Despite this, the film is very accomplished and compelling, the understated moralistic dilemmas leaving it a quiet power.

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There are some films/filmmakers who revel in their weirdness. Audiences going into watch the new David Lynch readily expect an explosion of surrealism. A sinister midget? Cross country lawnmowers? Oh David, you do spoil us. But then again, there are those peculiar films which lull you into a false sense of security, then BAM! A hippopotamus walks across the screen. Yes, you heard me.

Which leads me into Sleeping Sickness, upcoming German director Ulrich Kohler’s Cameroonian set film. The film starts off fairly dryly, with our introduction to doctor Ebbo Velten (Pierre Bokma), who is working in a remote hospital dealing with ‘sleeping sickness’. Sleeping sickness manifests itself with bouts of insomnia and fatigue, causing the sufferer severe disorientation. The film structurally tries to reflect this condition, in its elliptic editing and humid visuals.

Velten and his family are about to return back to Germany, after a long stint in Africa, and one critic has described the film as a representation of the displacement felt by moving between the continents. Personally, I felt it difficult to assign a particular message or theme to the film, such is its surreal, subtle allure. Halfway through the film, without warning, the focus shifts onto a young French-Congolese doctor named Nzila (Jean- Christophe Folly), who is embarking on a similar mission to Velten. He meets Velten there, and sees that the white doctor has become a shell of his former self.

I mentioned David Lynch earlier, and there are some parallels to be drawn with the disorientating structure and fluid, interchanging characters. Yet Sleeping Sickness is perhaps more unsettling because it often feels like a conventional observational drama akin to Claire Denis, then sidesteps you with a moment of absurdism. I can’t say I thought Sleeping Sickness was a great film, because it was slightly unsatisfying in its elusiveness. But this is also why it stays with you after the credits roll.

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In collaboration with London based arts organisation Guerrilla Zoo, I have just released a short documentary I directed covering a powerful and provocative event of theirs this summer. The event entitled Modern Panic was inspired by the work of the Panic Movement, formed by legendary art filmmakers Alejandro Jodorowsky, Fernando Arrabal and Roland Topor in Paris 1962. The event acts as a follow up to Guerrilla Zoo’s Season of Jodorowsky from late 2009.

Still from the original Panic Movement’s performance ‘Sacramental Melodrama’.

Presented by James Elphick Modern Panic explores the work of a number of international artists. The list includes legendary prisoner Charles Bronson (central character of Nicholas Winding Refn’s Bronson), the enfant terrible of Bolivia Gaston Ugalde, Berlin based taxidermist Iris Schieferstein and controversial british artist Kira O’Reilly. As well as these big names the film features a host of remarkable upcoming artists and Guerrilla Zoo regulars. All of these artists come together to create an event in the spirit of the original Panic Movement.

I hope you enjoy the film (but I must note that due to the nature of some of the content it is perhaps not ‘work safe’).

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