Eight years ago Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev turned in an impressive debut with The Return. Zvyagintsev's assured direction underscored the film's sublime mystery and subtle brutality. His second feature, The Banishment (2007), demonstrated similar craft, but came and went with what was a boat of disappointing ambiguities and abstractions. Zvyagintsev comes back in a big way with his new film, Elena, which trumps both in story and style. A tightly wound drama, Elena could (and should, if distributors are paying attention) put Zvyagintsev back in the international spotlight.
A character study, Elena works elements of classism and suspense into a layered dramatic mix. The woman of the title is an older matron who is a caretaker first and wife and mother second. But in a social structure that Elena has long accepted, this is the natural order of her life. Now, late in life, she finds herself straddling two social echelons: the upper class that she married into and the declining middle class of her son's family of four. Elena seems responsible for all of them, save her husband's "hedonistic" adult daughter Katerina, who is having none of Elena Anatolievna's condescension or compassion.
Elena is defined under Zvyagintsev's watchful eye through her efficiencies and tactfulness, both in her movements and emotions. It's within her morning ritual that we meet Elena: she wakes up alone in a modest room, busies herself with preparing the opulent apartment for the day, and cooks for the man who we understand to be the master of the house. As it turns out, the master of the house, Vladimir, is her husband of two years whom she married after becoming his nurse. What had obviously started as a professional co-habitation has only slightly evolved into more conjugal circumstances. Warm yet brusque, Elena seems content to trade her care, including an occasional romp, for the financial stability to provide a permanent safety net for her unemployed son, his wife, teenage son, and newborn living in tenement housing.
The bone of contention between Elena and her husband is their respective adult freeloading children. Vladimir's daughter lives the life of a person born into wealth with little need to support herself and only the desire to entertain herself. For less obvious reasons, Elena's son is a deadbeat extraordinaire, enabled into a life of beer, cigarettes and TV with a repulsive sense of entitlement. And now he has come to Elena with a problem: without a substantial sum of money for college, Elena's grandson, lacking the scores needed, will be forced to go into the military. Vladimir balks, Elena frets and the film starts to float down a much darker path.
Our protagonist is neither victim nor hero, but a not-so-clichéd survivor in modern Russia. Although the corner that Elena is forced into in the film is probably tighter than others she has seen before, you get the very real sense that this is not the first time she has had to make some tough moral decisions. Zvyagintsev toys with our allegiances by fine-tuning characters beyond a formal plot driven role, especially that of Elena. She is only self-sacrificing to a point, and the film gives her a grand stage for a manipulative tragedy of Shakespearian tone.
There is a palpable mood of suspense in Elena, staged with gorgeous long takes and snapshots and scored with the easy but effective sounds of Phillip Glass. The overhanging sense of doom echoes a society that is commerce driven and economically divided. Although these concepts certainly have universal weight, Russian society is a conundrum of haves and have-nots. Enter the magpie, a bird of contradictory worldwide superstitions, which is seen at the opening and the closing of the film. Just like the characters in the film, one person's omen is another person's charm, and one person's misfortune is another person's luck.
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