Elena is the most recent film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev.
is the most recent film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Coming off the back
of his two previously critically acclaimed film (The Return and The
Banishment) Elena is another piece of staunch stoicism set in modern
Elena is a well-mannered unsuspecting
housewife from a poor, working class background. As a former nurse she fell in
love and married a patient about 10 years prior to the film’s events. Her new
husband Vladimir is a rich but cold man. They both live in a spacious apartment
yet sleep in separate rooms. Although there are obvious signs of love, there is
a quiet tension whenever the two engage in serious discussion. Most of these
conversations are about the couple’s children from previous marriages. Elena’s
son is unemployed and stubborn. Constantly asking Elena for money, he is
incapable of supporting his own family. Despite this Elena still has a lot of
time for him and regularly visits his small flat. In contrast, Vladimir has a
lot of resentment. His hedonistic daughter rarely visits or contacts him and
his contempt for her is beginning to blind his judgement.
An unprecedented, near fatale stroke
causes Vladimir to consider where his large wealth will go. During his illness
he rekindles his daughter’s love and although still at odds the two are a lot
warmer to each other. With the inheritance potentially up for grabs, Elena must
make a challenging and troubling decision.
What’s impressive about Elena is its
ability to draw out and otherwise small story. The film could be condensed down
to around an hour but in reality it takes about an hour for the actual story to
start. Whereas other films would struggle to maintain the audiences’ attention
with such a drawn out narrative, Zyyagintsev gives us a masterclass in ‘boring’
cinema. The first shot for instance goes on for two minutes and consists of
nothing more than a tree. But as this progresses, truly beautifully images
occur. A bird inconspicuously glides into shot and the sun starts to break
through the branches and building in the background. It’s a beautiful start
which perfectly sets the methodical pace of the movie.
In saying that it is slow it doesn’t
mean it is without drama. A handful of scenes consist of drawn out sequences in
which we know something bad is going to happen. Much like the rest of the film
though, the impressive length of these scenes amps up the tension
significantly. In this aspect the film draws comparisons to the way the Coen
Brothers and Jim Jarmusch can successfully draw out scenes and keep
them compelling and entertaining. Yet Elena feels like a film that could only
take place in Russia.
Half of Elena seems to be a critique on
contemporary Russian life. The cold, un-emotive state that we usually associate
with Russia is a theme that runs throughout Elena. Nearly every character seems
to be very insular, rarely showing any sign of compassion or happiness. Only
when characters begin to talk to each other about their lives and feelings do they actually begin to resemble real
human beings. Zvyagintsev is also
prepared to show us the obvious class divide that exist within the country.
Such are the contrasts between Elena’s comfortable home life and her son’s
squalid poverty ridden surroundings, you could be forgiven in thinking they
were different films. It’s refreshing and intriguing to see this side of
Overall Elena is a perfect slow burner,
built around guilty consciences. Elena herself is a peculiar and fascinating
character. Towards the end of the film you do have to ask yourself who is she?
Why is she doing these things? Was this always her plan? It’s a genuinely brilliant
character study. We also get small insights into the characteristics of her
family and find out that this secrecy may be hereditary. All this is brought
together by a superb performance by Nadezhda
Markina, who knows just when to lay on the emotion and when to be
restrained. Combine this with the direction of Andrey Zyyagintsev and you have
a perfectly paced and composed film, full of questions and ideas.