Questions of love and scale: Elena, You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet and The Hobbit

13 December 2012

From the local to the national: 'Elena', one of the year's finest films, returns to Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema on Wednesday 19 December, and Alain Resnais's latest and final film, 'You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet', begins a short run at the Institut Français in London on Friday 14 December, while the first instalment of 'The Hobbit' was released in UK cinemas today.

Brevity, as Polonius advised in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is the soul of wit. It’s an aphorism with which Andrei Zvyagintsev may not have been associated following The Banishment (2007), whose expanded canvas and languid airs proved divisive following the dramatic thrills of his feature debut The Return (2003). Elena, however – which won the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at last year’s Cannes Film Festival – marks a return to the comparatively modest canvas of the earlier work, and suggests the director’s thematic territory is better served by a smaller scale. For, like the earlier films, Elena continues themes of familial dysfunction and estrangement, but the tighter window – immaculately and precisely framed, like that double-glazed pane in the opening shot – demands an economy and accommodates a disquiet that must brew alongside incident instead of replacing it. The result is thrilling; here, less is more.

Co-scripted by Zvyagintsev with Oleg Negin, Elena is named after its late-middle-aged protagonist (Nadejda Markina), a housewife whose two-year marriage to wealthy charmer Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) is one seemingly more of convenience than emotional dependency (they met, we are told, when she nursed him during a hospitalised stint with appendicitis a decade previously). As the opening sequence of disjointed shots suggests, Elena’s daily functions are segmented – she awakens in a bedroom adjoining her husband’s, prepares meals for two, has sex only when prompted, etc.

Her domestic ritual is alleviated by the bus-and-train journeys she takes across the city to visit Sergei (Alexei Rozin), her unemployed son from a previous relationship, and his wife and two children. At breakfast, Vladimir evinces resentment for Sergei’s financial reliance on Elena, and refuses him the loan that will allow Elena’s grandson Sasha to attend university and thus avoid conscription. When Vladimir suffers a heart attack during his own daily routine, however, Elena worries that his wealth and property will go to his own daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), at her own family’s expense…

Merging family drama with urban thriller, Elena also interweaves class tensions and gender politics with the kind of subtlety and artistry that attracts and rewards critical analyses and academic exegeses – it is, perhaps, the most research paper-friendly film since Haneke’s much-mined Caché (2005). Rich in interpretability, the film mounts the finer details of its milieus with exemplary precision. The gentle sound of a far-off city-centre evinces the security of Vladimir and Elena’s spacious apartment, while Sergei’s cramped lodgings in a tenement block overlooking cooling towers is a hive of busyness in comparison (and the framing is far tighter). Art, costume and production design are captured vividly, meanwhile, by Zvyagintsev’s regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who achieves a palette of earthy brown and aqua cyan that is at once striking and subdued, a kind of naturalist-arthouse response to the orange-teal gradient widely bemoaned by detractors of mainstream colour grading.

Elena begins with a daybreak captured in real-time, an unalterable phenomenon that might suggest the social gulf between Elena’s and Vladimir’s families resembles something of a natural order. But the shot also contains a mechanical-technical intervention that is suggestive to the contrary: not only does the image become increasingly bright, its focus gradually shifts, from the tree branches that ineluctably grow in the foreground to the immovable man-built apartment block behind them.

Such considered manipulation implies, perhaps, that Zvyagintsev and co. favour or at least sympathise with the corrective interventions enacted by their protagonist. Going further than merely paying lip service to the notion that “the last shall be first”, Elena takes it upon herself to appropriate her husband’s withheld philanthrocapitalism in order to redistribute it according to her own wishes. But neither the excellent performances nor the script paint things so easily; to this end, Zvyagintsev lends a charged atmosphere to otherwise outwardly banal moments (a trip across town; a routine swim; a preparation for a will-reading; a family gathering) with intermittent use of Philip Glass’s Third Symphony – nothing, here, is how it first appears.

Elena was released in UK cinemas in October, but enjoyed an excellent turnout in at least one of its two screenings at Newcastle's Tyneside Cinema last week. It returns for another screening on Wednesday 19 December – and this time, it might be its last. Catch it if and while you can – you’re unlikely to see a better film in the cinema before the year’s end.

Another film enjoying a brief but welcome UK theatrical run - at London's Institut Français - is You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Vous n’avez encore rien vu, 2012). Alain Resnais’s latest riff on familiar themes is a knowingly and distinctly cinematic work, in which a group of actors are brought together by Antoine d’Anthac, a recently-deceased theatre director with whom each has collaborated over the years, on adaptations of Jean Anouilh’s play Eurydice. Arriving at d’Anthac’s estate like successive entrants to Celebrity Big Brother, the group sits down to be greeted by d’Anthac from a television monitor. He has assembled his friends to ask them to watch a small-scale, low-budget film version of Eurydice, to see if they agree it warrants another production. For d'Anthac, the play is an ongoing love affair that resembles Resnais' own affection for narrative play and theatrical cinema/cinematic theatre.

As its title suggests, You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet has a quietly mischievous air to it, an informality that threatens to undercut the ceremonial theatricality evoked by this congregation of French stars, which includes Mathieu Amalric, Pierre Arditi, Sabine Azéma and Michel Piccoli, all of whom play “themselves”. Given Resnais’ recent renaissance following Wild Grass (2009), the title’s second-person address and casual boast-cum-promise bring healthy cheek to a film that seems, at 115 minutes, an exhausting variation of familiar material. Directing a script from Laurent Herbiet and Alex Réval, Resnais plunges headlong into his own film’s self-reflexivity and, like Antoine d’Anthac, seems to have returned to comfortable territory only to see if he can invest something new.

Thankfully, he keeps things performative, artificial and melodramatic enough to prevent everything from becoming po-faced. He also foregrounds the language of cinema: iris-pulls, split-screens, backdrops, blue screens, close-ups and montage allow for the kind of spatiotemporal manipulation denied by the stage. As the film unfolds, a discernible pattern emerges that helps anchor an otherwise fragmented narrative: the two leading couples with whom d’Anthac adapted Eurydice re-enact scenes from that play, and in the film/play’s (literal) third act, Resnais’s takes become more prolonged and less anxious. Consequently, we’re drawn more and more into each scene, unable to decide if we’re excited more by the play itself or the actors performing it, as each gesture seems to carry with it a performer’s longing to return to and rediscover old sparks.

Here, fictions remain present and continue to haunt the lives of those who have created and performed them (in the background of one scene, we spot a poster for Resnais’s 1959 debut, Hiroshima mon amour). As a film whose basic premise is set up posthumously by a director (or is it…?), You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet invokes swansong qualities, and melancholy and death permeate it throughout. If this turns out to be Resnais’s final film as expected, though, we may take it as a fitting and contented conclusion, which itself concludes with a magical resurrection and the nostalgic appraisal of Sinatra’s “It Was a Very Good Year”.

Like Resnais and his on-screen counterpart Antoine d’Anthac, meanwhile, Peter Jackson has returned to his own labour of love in order to reinvest energies and, presumably, reap healthy profits. Released nine years after the concluding part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (out now nationwide) sees Jackson and his frequent collaborators begin a prequel triptych that reverses the story-narrative ratio that saw each of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Rings novels condensed into three hours of film time: here, the scale is stretched so that Tolkien’s earlier and much slimmer work (first published in 1937, before Rings was even conceived) is given three filmic volumes – and the first clocks in at three hours alone.

Jackson’s Tolkienian adaptation – scripted with Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro – is consequently an exhaustive retention of details that leaves nothing to suggestion. Where the original Hobbit was a digestible and sweeping fantasy adventure written for children, Jackson’s is respectful perhaps to a fault, though the loving care with which its Middle Earth universe is rendered is undeniably winning. This is bloated deference in the same way as was Jackson’s King Kong remake (2005), which took the succinct 1933 original and expanded it into a gross and somehow appealing spectacle that seemed, like its villainous filmmaker Carl Denham, to subscribe to the notion that bigger was indeed better.

More, however, is less. An Unexpected Journey takes so long to get going that, somewhere towards its end, I had completely forgotten why its band of dwarves and their titular recruit, Bilbo Baggins (a suitably humble Martin Freeman), were voyaging through these dense woods and across these open plains. As if aware of this, the script repeats for us towards the end of the film just what the dwarves’ task is – to reclaim their land, which was, we learn from an insufferably long prologue, invaded and taken over by a dragon named Smaug.

Other problems persist. Even with time on his side, Jackson and his co-writers struggle to make each of his thirteen dwarves a vivid character in himself. As a result, the kind of ongoing, interracial banter that kept the Lord of the Rings films going – such as that between Gimli the dwarf and Legolas the elf – is missing. For the most part, the dwarves remain a likeable but homogeneous group, whose lowly, uncouth but – behold! – hearty solidarity is evinced by the amalgamation of Irish, Scottish and northern-English accents – played by the likes of James Nesbitt and Ken Stott. (The subscription to and reproduction of British accents and their class associations are given the full works: Sirs Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee return, thespian English and all, as the revered wizards Gandalf and Saruman, while Elvin elegance comes in the form of Australian actors Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving, doing their best to sound uniformly imperial.) It doesn’t help matters, either, that Thorin – the dwarves’ de facto king – is played by an utterly charmless Richard Armitage: Jackson and co. set up the character for a final-act assumption of responsibility akin to that of Viggo Mortensen’s Aragorn in The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), but Armitage is frankly flat – as is, in general, the first half of the film, an amusing encounter with three trolls notwithstanding.

Victim of a stretched timescale, An Unexpected Journey contains memorable sequences nevertheless, most of which come in the film’s final third. As with the finest moments in the preceding trilogy, things hurtle along quickest here when the protagonists are separated and their plights are told in parallel. While the dwarves are captured by the orcs, Bilbo finds himself in the dreary basement of the latter's dungeon, where he encounters Gollum (Andy Serkis), the hideous ex-hobbit whose mysterious golden ring Bilbo thieves following a delightful scene involving a game of riddles (Serkis, seen as a CGI-rendered figure as in the Rings trilogy, animates the film in more ways than one). High above, meanwhile, the dwarves are led in battle by Gandalf against a whole army of orcs. Here, regardless of a problematic temporal scale, Jackson further demonstrates his invention and energy in framing and directing action set-pieces in intricate spaces: the close-misses and near-falls that characterise the chase through this giant fire-lit cave has all the thrill and complexity of an Indiana Jones set-piece.

If Jackson’s chosen scale is questionable, though, the love with which he makes his films isn’t, and An Unexpected Hobbit begins a pleasant enough franchise that appears at least to be less rushed and better crafted than most others of late.

[You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet review originally posted at Front Row Reviews on 23 October 2012.]