Winner of Cannes' Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize, Elena is a gripping, modern twist on the classic noir thriller. Sixty-ish spouses Vladimir and Elena uneasily share his palatial Moscow apartment-he's a still-virile, wealthy businessman; she's his dowdy former nurse who has clearly "married up." Estranged from his own wild-child daughter, Vladimir openly despises his wife's freeloading son and family. But when a sudden illness and an unexpected reunion threaten the dutiful housewife's potential inheritance, she must hatch a desperate plan.... Masterfully crafted by award-winning Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (Golden Globe nominee The Return) and featuring evocative, Hitchcockian music by Philip Glass, Elena is a subtly stylish exploration of crime, punishment and human nature.
Elena is the story of an elderly couple, Elena (Nadezhda Markina from The Wedding) and Vladimir (His Wife's Diary's Andrey Smirnov), in an unhappy but functional marriage. A second marriage for both, Vladimir is wealthy, while Elena comes from humble beginnings. Elena's son, a dependent alcoholic named Sergey (Aleksey Rozin from Sobiratel pul) with one son about to enter college and another that is a newborn, is constantly hitting Elena up for money and, despite Vladimir's protests, she constantly gives it to him. After Vladimir suffers a near-fatal heart attack, he reconnects with his own daughter, a two-faced shrew named Katya (Dreaming of Space's Elena Lyadova). Sensing his mortality, Vladimir makes plans to change his will to leave his estate to his daughter instead of his wife, so Elena hatches a desperate plan to get him to change his mind so that she will still get his money and help her son and his children.
Although a bit overused, the premise behind Elena is a classic one; a desperate woman sensing the collapse of her future goes to great lengths to regain her security. It's the third film by the respected Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment), and the technical aspects of the picture are solid. It's expertly shot, well acted and meticulously put together. Elena shows off a minimalistic look and feel that evokes a realism that gives the viewer the impression that they are watching a little slice of economic divide, seeing the difference between wealth and poverty and telling the story of a woman trapped in the middle. Where Elena falls short is in the script; the storyline isn't fit for a full length feature, and the film experiences an overabundance of slow-moving, dragged-out scenes that attempt to fluff up a story that could logically be told in about a third of the time. The film attempts to be character driven but, despite the best efforts of the brilliant cast, the characters are all archetypes (the lazy son, the scheming daughter, the stubborn husband) and the situations get tiresome and repetitive. Even the score, a phone-in by the legendary minimalist composer Philip Glass (The Thin Blue Line), is a sparsely used, short motif that is looped in sporadically when needed. Elena is a film for those who can appreciate the technical aspects of filmmaking without demanding an engaging story.
The screenplay for Elena was written by Oleg Negin (who worked on The Banishment with Zvyagintsev), and it is by far the weakest element in the film. Not only is the story arc both predictable and convenient, but the plot moves slowly and plods along, seemingly going nowhere. Towards the beginning of the film, the dragging story combined with the prolonged photography technique provides an air of suspense, but it doesn't take long for the audience to see that the film is going exactly where they think it is going, and there's nothing suspenseful or surprising about it. Add to that a conclusion that is full of loose ends and completely unsatisfying (and literally ends with the same shot that the movie begins with), and Elena is just a poorly written story that is told extremely well.
Every member of the cast in Elena plays their part wonderfully. Nadezhda Markina's Elena captures the quiet desperation of a woman who only wants what's best for her son and grandchildren, and who will go to great extremes to make things happen. As Sergey, Elena's beer-swilling, deadbeat son, Aleksey Rozin plays the perfect lazy child, waiting for everything to be handed to him rather than working for it himself. Andrey Smirnov's Vladimir alternates between being an anti-hero when he wants to cut Sergey off and being a full-fledged villain when he wants to cut Elena out of his will, and Smirnov plays both extremes with conviction. And last, but certainly not least, Elena Lyadova is perfectly bitchy as the smiling backstabber Katya who, like her father in the film, alternates between sweet and innocent and stark-raving lunatic. Each actor in Elena holds his or her own individually, and each exhibits a high level of chemistry when onscreen together that is quite rare in modern cinema.
For Elena, Andrei Zvyagintsev used his go-to cinematographer Mikhail Krichman (who shot both The Return and The Banishment), and their comfort with each other is evident in the confidence of the photography. Elena is full of long, drawn out takes that appear to be happening organically but are, in fact, painstakingly rehearsed and choreographed. Almost every shot has some combination of camera movement and actor blocking that is absolutely fascinating to watch, and frankly steals the show away from the lackluster storyline. The film takes on a very natural feel, flowing almost like a stage play, with the camera capturing action instead of creating it, similar to the work in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. For as much preparation that went into the film, the camera and actors work together in a way that seems perfectly spontaneous, turning the viewer into a fly on the wall, spying on the characters.
Drama, Foreign Film
May 16, 2012