Cast: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrey Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katya), Alexey Rozin (Sergei), Evgenia Konushkina (Tatyana), Igor Ogurtsov (Sasha), Vasiliy Michkiv (Lawyer).
(Note: this review has been cross-posted on Twitch.)
Acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment) taps into the rich tradition of film noir, as well as the influence and cultural echoes of such diverse Russian forebears as Dostoevsky, Chekhov and Tarkovsky, in his latest work Elena, a superb slow-burn drama in which the peripheral details have as much impact as the main plotline. Zvyagintsev offers sharp, caustic social commentary on contemporary Putin-era Russia, where class warfare and the attendant divide between the haves and the have-nots prove to be not only insurmountable, but to have deadly consequences. Its impeccably composed, stark visuals lending a near-apocalyptic mood that permeates every frame, Elena leaves the viewer with a chill that lingers long after the end credits have rolled.
Beginning and ending with a shot of birds alighting on a branch outside a palatial, upscale Moscow apartment (just one example of how natural landscapes inform the human action throughout the film), Elena is named after its protagonist (played by Nadezhda Markina), a sixtyish woman living in that apartment who is married to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich businessman. They met each other years before when Elena was a nurse and Vladimir was her patient; Elena’s caretaker role has continued into their married life, in which her main job is to attend to her husband’s needs, getting him out of bed and handling all the domestic duties. Though they outwardly seem to be a loving couple, this is belied by the fact that they sleep in separate beds, which make Elena as much a maidservant as she is a wife.
Elena and Vladimir both have adult children from their previous marriages, each with their separate problems. Elena’s son Sergei (Alexey Rozin) is a dissolute layabout, living in a rundown tenement in the suburban outskirts of Moscow who depends on the financial largesse Elena manages to wheedle out of a grudgingly tolerant Vladimir. Sergei constantly bickers with his wife, usually over his equally aimless and undisciplined teenage son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov); Sergei’s lack of emotional maturity is neatly represented by the beer bottle that is constantly at his mouth, echoing the milk bottle in the mouth of his infant son. Vladimir is estranged from his daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), whom her father terms a “hedonist,” similarly to Sergei lacking gainful employment, apparently spending most of her time indulging in one-night stands and alcohol.
The needs of Sergei and his family, whom Elena cares for fiercely and seemingly without judgment, form the catalyst for the main conflict of the film. Elena is very much concerned about getting her grandson Sasha into college so that he won’t be drafted into the military, and perhaps harboring an unspoken wish to prevent him from ending up like his father. Elena repeatedly asks Vladimir for money to help him go to school, presumably to help bribe the right people, since Sasha won’t get into a good school with his grades alone. Vladimir, openly resenting having to provide for Elena’s family, puts his foot down, refusing this latest request for assistance. Later, when a health scare and a belated reconciliation with his daughter causes Vladimir to redraft his will, Elena contemplates taking drastic measures to protect her own future financial stability as well as her son’s family’s. Without giving too much away, if you’ve seen The Postman Always Rings Twice or such latter-day European re-imaginings as György Fehér’s Hungarian film Passion (1998) or Christian Petzold’s German film Jerichow (2008), you’ll probably guess where this story is headed.
With now just three features to his credit, Andrey Zvyagintsev has catapulted himself to the ranks of the finest world directors, and certainly one of the best filmmakers to come out of Russia; Elena is his finest creation yet. Zvyagintsev and his collaborators, especially his brilliant regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, excel in every department; especially impressive is how Elena’s cinematic frame teems with details that complement the main action and provide acerbic and disturbing commentary on modern Russian life. For example, television – sometimes heard, sometimes seen – is a constant backdrop to many interior scenes in the film. The inane cooking, dating, and advice shows that blare in the background are the new opium of the people, to borrow from Marx’s famous maxim concerning religion, that prevent citizens from thinking too hard about their circumstances and the societal injustices and socioeconomic inequalities that have placed them there. (Not to mention the conditions that have allowed an authoritarian ex-KGB man have constant rule over Russia for what, with the latest election, will be close to two decades.)
Elements of the natural world, especially animals, exist as portentous symbols of the ominous fates awaiting the human characters; for example, the loud cawing of crows (never a good sign) is heard throughout. Late in the film, Elena’s train passes by a dead horse on the side of the tracks, an unmistakable metaphor for the evil that Zvyagintsev sees shaping the universe he creates in Elena, as well as the world he sees around him. In his director’s statement, he says that Elena gave him the chance “to explore the central idea of the early modern period: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost … Ever-increasing disengagement and individualism mean that people start to behave more and more like a bunch of tarantulas in a jar.”
I must mention two more elements that contribute to Elena’s artistic success. Nadezhda Markina’s central performance is a riveting and complex one that elicits both sympathy and revulsion with equal intensity, as we see what Elena is truly capable of when push comes to shove and the drive for self-preservation becomes an all-encompassing force, subsuming any sense of morality, scruples, or even love. The starkly understated, yet intense action of the film is propelled by Philip Glass’s propulsive score, taken from his 1995 composition Symphony No. 3. This piece recurs throughout the film, mostly in scenes with Elena traversing the sharply disparate worlds of wealth and privilege represented by her rich husband’s neighborhood, and the relative poverty of the crumbling high-rise inhabited by her son. Glass’s music plays during an overhead shot of a newborn baby playing on an oversized bed, which becomes a deeply unsettling symbol of the unending cycle of dog-eat-dog materialism that Zvyagintsev so vividly, and unforgettably, depicts.
Elena is now playing at Film Forum in New York through May 29. Click here for more information and to purchase tickets.