The Return - Andrei Zvyagintsev Russia 2003

, 2006-07-30

The Return - Andrei Zvyagintsev Russia 2003 Tyneside Cinema - 10th July 2004

The Return - Andrei Zvyagintsev  Russia 2003

Tyneside Cinema - 10th July 2004

The Return starts as an apparent vehicle for a mythic narrative - perhaps something like the story of Abraham and Isaac - but hesitates before settling on a narrative style that draws its inspiration from the Hollywood genre relating to dysfunctional one parent families. Russian mythic cinema pales into the American suburban vision.  But whilst it is Hollywood that seems to determine the style and look of the film,  mythic thematic undertow still pulls at the historical sinews the Return pointing up  Zvyagintsev’s entrapment in an irreconcilable opposition  between the film ethos of Russia and made in the USA.  The director ultimately abandons his film as an impossibility and resorts to completing it in the form of a  travelogue with a soap opera story bolted on.   Finally the Return is consumed in the banalities released by its own contradiction: there is nothing in the film to think about and nothing in the film to look at.  You wait for it to pass in your time.

The film is witness to a sell out by Russian cinema to the stylistic cannons of Hollywood.  It’s a sell out that doesn’t go to plan as the film ends up feeling like a British lottery funded movie.  A feature of the typical Hollywood product is the characters in the scenario are without significant contextual grounding(and in this Hollywood is true to the American context of immigration - the idea of starting a new life).   Instead of context we have ‘situation’. Situation replaces context: this works for Hollywood’s American consumer society where the characters in any given situation come linked to assemblies and circuits of signifiers(often commercial products; language forms; typecast blue and white collar types {the detective, the single high powered business woman} and discourses{age, gender, back story}) This interplay of signifiers culled from visual retinal and audio cues enables the audience to place the characters  in any given Hollywood film in a relevant psychic setting.  The signifiers feed readability into the situation.

In the Return there is a single mum who has two boys and who looks after them with the help of her mother.  They live something like a middle class lifestyle - not comfortable by American standards  -  but the kids do possess things like fishing rods and reels.  In a Hollywood film we could read this(perhaps as an essentially good battling suburban mum).  But the Return’s setting, somewhere in Russia( opening Armenian music).  In modeling himself on an opening  typical of Hollywood genres Zvyagintsev feeds us a situation without context but also without the sort of signifiers Hollywood uses to ground the action.  The audience struggle to place or locate any of his characters who thereby are doomed, not in any mythic manner, but artistically never to engage us at any but the most superficial level - the machination of plot.

If the film is supposed to be set in the domain of myth then I think it fails lamentably though there are the ingredients set in place to make me believe that this might have been the intention of the original scenario.  The film opens with water.  The idea of water.  It moves then to a tower that rises high over the sea with the gang of boys hurling themselves from its height, calling up a sacrificial image, Inca step pyramids etc.  The film moves quickly to its liminal event, sudden almost like Pasolini,  the return of the father.  An entrance that  has a mythic resonance as the father demands that his two sons come away with him.  The breath of Abraham or even Laius.  But it is not to be.  The mythic subtext does not sustain itself.  It switches and focuses on becoming a cutesy contemporary children’s film, with the rebellion of one of the sons occupying the central holding space of the scenario.  The film switches from myth to faciality with the rebellious son’s face taking the camera’s prime attention:  His grimaces, his sulks, his defiance.  Caught up in the demands of a scenario centering on the children’s demands The Return has no where to go and lapses into a travelogue with soap opera plot and dialogue, to the accompaniment of mega doses of rain which is nothing more than rain. By the time we arrive at the climax of the film which centres on another huge tower built in the middle of a small island somewhere in Russia, any resonance of its early mythic symbolism is totally absent.

Part of what diminishes the film is its camera work which follows the Hollywood pattern of being agitated and dedicated to movement for its own sake for fear that unless the camera moves the audience will suffer restlessness.  There are examples of long sequences where the focus is pulled during shots to resolve the one who is speaking.  The focus pulling in the film serves no purpose other than the literal function of focusing on he who speaks.  A kind of passe literalism.   The camera tracks to no clear purpose other than to show it can go round corners.  The purpose of the camera work other than to demonstrate that the film maker can set up a track is never clear.  Early in the film the two brothers race each other back from the sea tower to their house - in fact its a chase that turns into a race back to mother.  Now obviously great planning went into this long sequence which contains a lot of fast moving tracks. But the sequence doesn’t work to move the audience any deeper into the film.  It just seems like a Hollywood set piece.  The race in and for itself its own justification - a situation within a situation, a piece of film slipping into another piece of film.  It probably inhibits any chance of the film developing mythically: the overactive camera work works against the establishment of mythic development, at least in the way Zvyganitsev shoots it.  But perhaps this wasn’t his intention.

Perhaps his intention was to make a Hollywood calling card with a recognisable American theme of the estranged and vanished pop returning back to take his sons on a camping trip and to show them the things they will never have been able to learn off their mother and her mother.  In this case the focus pulls, the twitching tracking camera that can’t stay still are all his way of showing Hollywood that he speaks their language.  He also knows that the film must look good so that for the most part exteriors should be shot as if the film were a travelogue, and there should be plenty of rain.  Not for metaphysical reasons but for plot development, to keep the picture moving and to show that you can handle rain machines even Russian ones. As we are talking Hollywood not myth its the plot which will have to have a twist. Not character.  And where there are children and adults together, it’s Hollywood’s  rule(occasionally flaunted) that the kids win no matter what.  The kids should be cute and perspicacious seeing through the world of the adult - in particular if he is a man.  The man on the other hand should have no realistic understanding of kids, be mostly concerned with getting the kids to see or do things his way, and when all else fails in communication  resort to violence threreby revealing his character.  And so on and so forth.

The dialogue in The Return follows the Hollywood approved pattern of grumpy dad, smart kids.  So perhaps  Zvyagintsev is marking his card.  The trouble is that the Russian actors who all look OK, in particular Mum of whom we see little but who has a Jocasta quality, don’t seem comfortable with their words.   The way pop and his younger son deliver their lines it felt to me that there was a gap between the delivery of the lines and the accompanying expressive faciality.  Even though I don’t understand Russian there was an alternating current driving the acting that swung from a stilted quality which then overcompensated by swinging through the pendulum to an overblown melodramatic delivery.  Certainly not the stuff dreams are made of.

A last note.  The cast was overpopulated.  There was no reason for having two sons in the script; it crowded the stage and added nothing to the dimensionality of the father son relationship.  The two sons simply functioned as one but in a manner that was much less interesting than if there had been just one juvenile psyche to answer the alternating push and pull of compliance and rebellion.  Splitting the roles instead of unifying them deprived the film of its dynamic.  The energy was dissipated and ultimately the film was unable to sustain interest in a three sided relationship that never had any possibility of resolution between its discrete parts.