Film review: Elena

by **

Dear Dad

A late-blooming romantic affair from Andrei Zvyagintsev was never going to be a heartwarming love story of the happily-ever-after variety. Nor would we want it to be.

Armed with a penetrating eye for social (and political) observations that he uses to devastating effect, Zvyagintsev is one of the most talented directors working in Russia today.

His debut, ‘The Return’, which won the prestigious Golden Lion award in the 2003 Venice Film Festival, established him as the most apparent artistic progeny to Soviet film giant Andrei Tarkovsky.

And despite a disappointing second movie, which lost itself and its critics in a miasma of gratuitous enigma, Zvyagintsev has again stunned the industry with a breathtaking composition.

The title character, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is a bulky woman in her late 50s. She was a nurse before she met and married a wealthy patient, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), 10 years ago. Now, she shares his home — though not his room — in an upscale city apartment in Moscow near the Kremlin.

A long take on a misty morning scene outside the apartment’s wide balcony, which shows a solitary crow resting on a winter branch until a second crow flies in to share its space, opens the film, and sets the tone for the intense and metaphysical quality that is to permeate the whole production.

The couple’s life together appears civil enough — if somewhat geriatrically tired — until Vladimir openly disdains Elena’s adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) who, choosing to be unemployed, happily relies on his mother’s cash handouts to raise his young family in Russia’s crumbling industrial fringe. This provokes Elena’s defiant defence and in retaliation, she criticises Vladimir’s own daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), from whom he is reluctantly estranged.

Against a backdrop of mind-numbing modern day sounds — television cook shows, game shows, and sports commentary — Elena and Vladimir conduct their relationship as businesses would their transactions: when Elena pleads for Vladimir’s monetary aid to help bribe Sergey’s teenage son Sasha’s (Igor Ogurtsov) way into college, Vladimir demands a quid pro quo by way of sex.

In spite of the obvious juxtaposition of the rich and the impoverished, Zvyagintsev’s narrative (co-written with Oleg Negin) is more a statement about post-Soviet, Putin-era Russian society than it is about pitting one class’ morality against the other’s. While the poor (represented here by Sergey and his family) are portrayed as feckless and slothful, the affluent (Vladimir and his daughter) are equally depicted as unsavoury in their debauched and “hedonistic” ways.

And the depraved society in the meantime can only fester and smoulder for as long as — what Katya describes as — “rotten seeds” are produced by parents who are themselves “sick and doomed”. Sasha’s languid spitting over the balcony, in splitting image of his father’s act, makes for figurative proof.

The movie’s bleached-out palettes, with its muted colours, heighten the atmosphere of bleak desolation. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman often shoots the primary casts on their own in the frame: Elena alone in the plush apartment, Vladimir swerving around alone in his luxury car, Elena as the sole person on a train passing silos and barren land, Vladimir as the only swimmer in the public pool. Add to these Andrey Dergachev’s eerie soundscapes that alternate unsettling cawing of crows with chilling silence. And the slow-moving portrait becomes one nearly too depressing to behold.

Still, Philip Glass’ superb original score rewards you for persevering. Injecting an intriguing Hitchcockian flavour, his string symphonies build visceral suspense when Elena, dismayed at Vladimir’s intention to will almost everything to Katya with whom he has reconciled after a bout of heart attack at the pool, plots to take matters into her own hands.

As the audience holds their breath, waiting for and believing in — as church-visiting Elena also does — retribution to be meted out, the film only leaves them unconvinced, when the subsequent series of ominous forebodings (dead horse, blackout, and Sasha’s doglike-fight) seem to yield all but naught.

Markina responds to her character with a wonderfully complex performance, amply expressing herself with few words, but with volumes of emotion.

Elena is a love story that does ironically end in ’til death do us part’. Whether it finishes ‘happily ever after’ is probably more controversial — it depends on which perpective you choose to take.

What is clear, though, is that in Russia, as Zvyagintsev so deftly conveys, blood will always be thicker than water. And, more importantly, that justice (spiritually or judicially) is hopelessly elusive there.