Before coming back to Alexandra I would like to consider the specifity and generality of the film. There are some elements that are not understandable unless one knows some details of the Chechnya war. Thus the behaviour of the soldiers and the civilian youth when Alexandra is boarding the train is obviously a reference to draft dodging and desertion, so is the cut away shot of the civilian youth when Alexandra wakes up in Denis’s tent. Indeed the whole concept of an old woman going to an army camp may be seen as a nod to the Russian women who helped their sons to desert. However the jeers at Cannes, and the comments that the film is Russian propaganda can be explained by two exchanges.
In the first one Alexandra replies to Ilyas her Chechen escort’s “give us our freedom” with a kind of lecture about patience, about asking God of intelligence about strength not residing in weapons. These homilies are vague enough to be perceived as a put down of the Chechen youth or as more general comments. The exchange with Denis however is more specific. Alexandra mentions how she could not ask the Chechen woman why they kidnapped people and kept them in pits underground. She then says that this sort of cruelty must be ‘in the genes’. Some reviewers mainly French ones (in particular Le Monde critic) have interpreted this last pronouncement as the ideological position of the film rather than a racial prejudice from Alexandra as a character. But Denis follows this train of thought by describing Chechen women as monsters foaming at the mouth, thus making fun of Alexandra. This has not been commented on by reviewers. Certainly these scenes should be analysed in more detail before asserting that the film is an apology for the Russian war against Chechnya.
The violence, futility and losses of war are implied in every shot of the three parts of the film. The first part filmed in an army camp in Chechnya could be any army camp anywhere. The young men could be any soldiers. The stress on the complaints about inadequate equipment is also common to all armies at war.
The second part is filmed in a bombed Grozny. It could be any town that has been destroyed by war with a population oppressed by the occupation of a foreign army. Alexandra makes an immediate contact with Malika an ex-teacher who welcomes her into her flat and takes care of her. Alexandra appears tired physically but also mentally. She confides that she has lost her husband two years ago that he was “cruel, shouting all the time”. Now that he is dead she feels free and can live for herself. The rapport between the two women is immediate and Alexandra returns to the camp escorted by a local youth, Ilyas.
The third part takes place back at the camp again with its very young soldiers and military hardware.
This time the interaction between Alexandra and Denis is more verbal. As opposed to the sore feet shot of the first view of Denis we see now his wounded hand. He informs her that he was in a fight with one of his own soldiers who disobeyed. The dialogue then moves from Alexandra accusing Denis of violence to a defenceless soldier to Denis accusing Alexandra of having toed the line under the power of her husband and depriving her daughter and himself of any affection. It is then that the conversation takes an intimate tone. Denis describes graphically in all its physical details death in a uniform and the need for a uniform to be of good quality. Alexandra then breaks down and cries expressing fear of dying alone. It is in this context that Denis holds his grandmother in a long most affectionate, comforting embrace. This image is heartrendingly touching showing a strong youth and an old woman both in the shadow of death. Its power resides more in this tragic undertones of loss than the near ‘erotic fondness’ or the ‘bizarre sexual pulse’ that some reviewers ascribe to it and similar scenes.
The last sequences are of Alexandra and three women. Malika and two younger women accompany her to get her train. The four of them are united in a communal good-bye hug and Alexandra invites Malika to come and visit her.
Medium shots of Malika on the platform and Alexandra on the moving train conclude the film. The elegiac music matches their sad faces and continues into and during the credits.
This film is unique in that it represents an older woman’s view on war rather than an older woman in a war situation. I have seen the film many times and I am still finding new interesting details. I have not mentioned other aspects of the mise en scene, the sound track and music and the colour palette. These have been discussed in the extras of the DVD and by reviewers.