Spare and acutely observed, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” tells a simple story of familial discord in today’s Russia that would seem like an episode of a cheap crime show if it weren’t done with such cool, clinical detachment—and ignored any police involvement whatever. The overall effect is starkly powerful and deeply troubling.
The title character, played by Nadezhda Markina with a quietly somber, soulful mien, is the wife of wealthy Vladimir (Andrej Smirnov). She’s his second wife, an ex-nurse who cared for him some years earlier after his appendicitis surgery. And both have children from previous marriages. He’s estranged from his daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova), a hedonist whom he gives a regular allowance but otherwise ignores. And she’s burdened by a layabout, heavy-drinking son, Sergei (Alexey Rozin), who lives with his wife (Evgenia Konushkina) and two children in a run-down Soviet-era complex on the outskirts of town. She travels to visit them by bus and train, always bringing food and money along.
Vladimir and Elena live in a big, modern apartment in an expensive high-rise, where—apart from occasional bouts of sex—they live drearily empty lives, with radios and televisions constantly blaring out inane talk and quiz shows. Their routine is set, except for one problem between them. Elena wants Vladimir to finance her surly grandson Sasha’s (Igor Ogurtsov) university tuition so that he can avoid military service. Vladimir refuses, tired of subsidizing Sergei’s laziness in supporting his family.
A crisis arises when Vladimir suffers a heart attack while exercising at his gym and his daughter visits him there. Amused by the girl’s cynical attitude about the meaninglessness of human existence—which he obviously shares—he abruptly announces his decision to write a will making her his chief beneficiary, leaving Elena with a modest annual pension. Thinking of the effect that would have on her ability to help Sergei and Sasha, she decides to take action to prevent it from happening.
“Elena” presents all this in an unforced, matter-of-fact fashion that makes it all the more unsettling. One of the most striking juxtapositions is the change that occurs in Elena’s travel to Sergei’s apartment. In the opening sequence, it’s a long, tiring trip by public transportation. After Vladimir’s death, Elena orders a taxi to pick her up at her high-rise’s entrance. And her act of domestic violence is contrasted with one that abruptly arises at the complex where Sergei’s family lives, when Sasha goes out with his dissolute friends to brutally attack a rival gang. The effect of the whole is to convey, without flamboyance or exaggeration, the aridity and aimlessness of a society where violence and corruption lurk not very far from the surface.
Zvyagintsev’s directorial vision is anchored in the terse, naturalistic script he’s penned with Oleg Negin, Mikhail Krichman’s unfussy camerawork, and Anna Mass’ patient editing, which lets the mood sink in without amplification. Similarly, Philip Glass’ typically propulsive score is employed sparingly, adding texture and atmosphere without belaboring the points the director is making.
And the performances are all realistic rather than showy. The film belongs to Markina, who gives a simmering intensity to the slightly plump, commonplace housewife, who trundles out of her elite apartment complex is simple coat and babushka. But Smirnov carries gruff authority as Vladimir, and both Lyadova and Rozin capture the careless sense of entitlement Katerina and Sergei, each in his own way, bring to the way they live their very different lives.
“Elena” is a pointed character study of its title figure, but it’s an even more quietly savage one of the morally comatose society in which she and her two families live. Compelling without ostentation, it’s a remarkable film.