Oedipal Drama, Russian Style: Zvyagintsev’s The Return

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return has been likened to the obsessive cinema of Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-1986) by the Russian film critic and historian Oleg Sulkin. Mr. Zvyagintsev himself described his intentions in The Return in the following cryptic press statement: ” … I did not see the story as an every-day tale or a social one. To a great extent, the film is a mythological look on human life. This is probably what I would want the audience to keep in mind before they enter the screening room.”

Indeed, The Return , if anything, is anti-anecdotal. The director refuses to resolve every mystery in its plot-even though the unfolding chain of events becomes crystal clear by the time we reach the curious, though disturbingly poignant, ending.

Mr. Zvyagintsev’s story follows the fate of two Russian brothers, 12-year-old Vanya (Ivan Dobronravov) and his 14-year-old sibling, Andrey (Vladimir Garin). The boys live with their mother (Natalya Vdovina), with whom they’ve formed an extremely close attachment since their father abandoned them 12 years ago.

We’re first introduced to the two brothers indirectly; along with a group of other boys, we see them engaged in an informal initiation ritual-making a dangerous jump off a makeshift tower into the lake below. Each boy passes the test, until it’s Vanya’s turn. Afraid to jump, Vanya is abandoned by Andrey and the other boys and sits sobbing on the tower until his concerned mother climbs up and consoles him. (It’s interesting to note that the director parallels this with a similar tower scene near the end of the film, with its decisively violent climax.)

The next day, Vanya gets into a fight with the other boys and runs home just ahead of his pursuing brother. Once at home, their mother greets them with some startling news: Their father, whom they know only from an old faded snapshot, has returned after an unexplained 12-year absence-and he’s sleeping in the next room. As the two boys gaze on their sleeping parent, the entire scene becomes a painterly tableau from some earlier age.

At dinner that night, their father tries to assert his parental authority as if he’d never been away. Vanya remains sullen and suspicious of this stranger coming between him and his loving mother, but Andrey seems anxious to be accepted by a father he’s never known.

The following morning, the eager papa persuades his wife to let him take the two boys on a fishing trip. The rest of the film is taken up with this fateful journey, which only deepens the mystery surrounding the man: What’s he been doing for 12 years? Why is he back? And who is the person he keeps calling along the way? As we plunge deeper and deeper into this Oedipal quagmire, we find ourselves in an ever more threatening and primitive environment; though much of the action was shot outside of Moscow, the bleakly underpopulated landscape has the look and feel of Siberia, the director’s birthplace.

Vanya’s stubborn defiance, Andrey’s fearful acquiescence, and the father’s uncertain alternation between force and tenderness in his pathetic desire to be a real father finally boil over into Vanya’s open rebellion, leading to the final catastrophe. Please forgive me, for a moment, for searching into the subtext lurking beneath this brilliantly acted and photographed, yet strangely frustrating fable. In addition to its Freudian suggestions-that of the ascendancy of Mother over Father-the film seems to reflect an implicit reaction against the patriarchal tyranny, first of Stalin and now of Putin, in the incorrigibly infantile Russian soul (though I’m sure the director will vehemently deny this reading).

As for the proposed fishing trip, the father ditches that plan, instead taking the boys on an ominous expedition to a deserted island-an expedition seemingly prepared long in advance. Here, the father digs up a metal box, the contents of which are never revealed, since by the end of the film the unopened box sinks, apparently forever, into the lake.

Alfred Hitchcock did something similar in Psycho (1960), sinking a car along with an envelope containing $10,000 of stolen money into a swamp. As the master of keeping his audience on edge, Hitchcock played on his viewers’ involuntary greed by ignoring the fate of the sunken cash. Unfortunately, in a later scene, Hitchcock has the psychiatrist character explain everything that went on in the Bates Motel, a scene that many people profess to hate for its redundancy. Nowadays, it seems that young audiences prefer to be mystified by movies rather than having everything neatly explained. If you’re among the former group, The Return is the movie for you.

Pass the Turkey

Peter Hedges’ Pieces of April , from his own screenplay, has been brought back to theaters in an attempt to cash in on Patricia Clarkson’s Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actress. I missed this Thanksgiving-themed attraction when it was originally released in the middle of October, so I felt it incumbent on me to check out the movie and Ms. Clarkson’s performance. It’s been a comparatively big year for Ms. Clarkson, with various critics’ groups around the country honoring her performance here and in Thomas McCarthy’s The Station Agent .

Pieces of April , for most of its running time, feels like the usual “dysfunctional family heading for Thanksgiving-dinner reunion disaster” kind of movie. April Burns (Katie Holmes), the pretty and rebellious member of the Burns family, is living with a funky African-American boyfriend, Bobby (Derek Luke), in a dingy apartment in a Lower East Side slum. For some unknown reason, she decides to invite her entire extended family for Thanksgiving dinner, despite the fact she has only the vaguest idea how to cook a turkey. Even though her boyfriend is clearly more competent in these matters, she sends him away during the preparation so she can prove to her family that she’s a good homemaker.

Meanwhile, deep in the heart of suburbia, the rest of the Burns family is trying to find an excuse not to go to April’s dinner. Not that they need any excuses-April’s mother, Joy (Ms. Clarkson), is slowly dying from cancer, and her hapless husband, Jim (Oliver Platt), is at his wits’ end trying to keep the family in a holiday mood. Add to that April’s younger sister, Beth (Alison Pill), intensely who hates her sister; her brother, Tommy (John Gallagher Jr.), who’s casually indifferent; and her Grandma Dottie (Alice Drummond), who’s going ga-ga from Alzheimer’s.

Having introduced us to two different segments of hell, Mr. Hedges alternates between squabbling scenes. On April’s side, we see her banging on the doors in her building to find a workable oven and being confronted by a variety of her New York neighbors. One African-American neighbor gives her attitude about the unfair advantages enjoyed by white people; a family of Asians don’t speak English; and, finally, a nerdy neighbor with a little dog in his arms offers to lend April his new stove, then locks her out when she doesn’t respond warmly to his tentative advances.

As for Bobby, he spends his time dashing around town in a motor scooter on ill-defined errands before getting beaten up by April’s white ex-boyfriend, who’s changed his name to Tyrone to better bond with his multiracial buddies (some of these off-the-wall conceits seem to come directly from MTV without passing “Go”).

Back on the road, Joy keeps pulling in at rest stops to throw up in the ladies’ room, after which she springs back into the car to do something zany that shows she still has the old life force. Some of Joy’s outbursts are darkly funny, but the whole movie is longer on calculating sourness than on psychologically organic wit. When Joy and her children buy candy to tide them over until they can get to April’s, Jim puts his foot down, confiscates the sweets and throws them in the trash so that their appetites aren’t spoiled when they get to April’s. Since we’ve already seen April’s long losing battle with her turkey, we brace ourselves for the moment when the family realizes that they should have kept the candy.

What happens next is even more dispiriting-at least initially. The Burns family drives up to the graffiti-strewn façade of April’s building, and they’re shocked. Of course, they’re even more shocked when they realize that the young African-American greeting them with exuberant friendliness is living with April. And after discovering that April’s turkey is a bust, they drive away in confusion to a restaurant for their holiday meal. As with most movies from the Thanksgiving genre, everything ends happily: Joy leads the Burns family back up to April’s apartment, and all of the young woman’s hitherto-weird neighbors join in a multiracial sharing of God’s bounty, in the manner of the first pilgrims and their Native American neighbors. It’s too neat by far, and I didn’t believe a bit of it, but I must confess that the sharing-and-caring spirit finally got to me. And that’s something in these dismal times.

Sing-Song Cinema

Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), with music composed and conducted by Michel Legrand, is being revived in a restored print that should erase all painful memories of the inferior prints-mutilated, dubbed or with washed-out color-that have circulated for decades on television. This delicately bittersweet work, told completely through song (albeit lip-synching), was not a great success in America when it was first released in New York in 1964. This was largely due to the unfriendly reviews by Bosley Crowther, the influential critic at The New York Times , and Judith Christ, the particularly acerbic film critic at The New York Herald-Tribune . I recall audiences roaring with unfriendly laughter when an “Esso” sign popped up amid the delicate pastels of the set design, even though Nino Castelnuovo’s Guy, the lover of Catherine Deneuve’s Geneviève, worked in a gas station.

Demy (1931-1990) dedicated his first film, Lola (1961), to Max Ophuls, and his lyrical camera movements attest to the Ophulsian influence, but he was enraptured even more by the glories of the great American musicals from the 30’s through the 50’s. Unfortunately, he lacked the musical infrastructure of the Hollywood studios, though he did add Gallic irony and sadness to the mix.