Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Andrei Zvyagnitsev
Stars: Nadzehda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Aleksey Rozin, Yelena Lyadova, Igor Ogurtsov.
This bleak but visually stunning Russian drama screened at the Melbourne International Film Festival and the 2011 Russian Film Festival, and now gets a limited commercial release. Elena offers a stark vision of class warfare in Putin’s Russia, where the social divide between the haves and the have-nots is enormous.
Elena (played by Nadzehda Markina, from The Wedding, etc) is married to the cold but wealthy, retired industrialist Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), whom she met while working as a nurse in the hospital. Elena took a job as a housekeeper with Vladimir in order to continue helping to support her unemployed son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) and his family, who live in a high rise tenement block, which is defaced with graffiti, in a run down industrial area on the outskirts of Moscow. Ugly power plants dot the a bleak wasteland around Sergey’s apartment block. The contrast between Elena’s opulent and expansive apartment with its fine furnishing, wood panels and bright and warm interiors and the ugly and small confines of Sergey’s flat is quite marked.
Every day Elena gets up, feeds Vladimir, gives him his medications, and then traipses across town to visit her deadbeat son and his impoverished family. Sergey keeps asking for more money from Elena, as he is desperate to keep his slacker son Sasha out of the army and help him get into college. Vladimir is reluctant to keep paying for her family, believing that it is Sergey’s responsibility to provide for his own family.
But then Vladimir suffers a heart attack, and decides to write a will in which he will leave virtually everything to his estranged and hedonistic daughter Katarina (Yelena Lyadova), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Katarina has been sponging off her father for years. Elena is forced to take drastic action to ensure that she keeps her potential inheritance and everything she believes she is entitled to, and also provide for her grandson’s future.
Markina is terrific, and her subtle, understated performance captures Elena’s internal struggle and moral dilemma. Her performance here won the Best Actress prize in the recent Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Elena is a bleak take on the noir genre from director Andrei Zvyagnitsev, one of the exciting new breed of Russian filmmakers, whose 2003 film The Return was a similarly bleak and austere drama about family life and dysfunctional relationships. It also had the same air of moral ambiguity. This morality tale also looks at the lengths to which parents will sometimes go in order to provide for their children. Zvyagnitsev works with long takes and an unhurried pace that draws us into this story and develops a sense of slow burning tension. His approach to filmmaking is reminiscent of the legendary Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky, whom Zvyagnitsev clearly admires. Even small details become important in the grand scheme of things.
Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman captures the austere settings and creates a beautiful but stark contrast between Elena’s comfortable environment and the dowdy existence of her son. His imagery is also laden with symbolism that underscores the allegorical nature of the drama. The opening shot, which lasts about five minutes, centres on a tree branch as the morning sun rises and slowly throws an orange glow over the setting.
Elena is a subtle but powerful character study and morality play that doesn’t provide easy answers to some troubling ethical issues. The film is a grim reflection of contemporary Russia, a place of great poverty and unrest and disillusionment. Philip Glass’s lush and repetitive soaring score is important in establishing the mood of the film and also suggests an atmosphere of increasing dread.
The script, co-written by Zvyagnitsev and Oleg Negin, is taut and sparse, and there are long passages free of dialogue. The film ends rather abruptly on an ambiguous note, leaving the audience to guess at what happens afterwards.