A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Elena (Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2011)

Like Zvyagintsev's 2014 Oscar-nominated Leviathan, Elena is a scathing portrait of contemporary Russian society. But where Leviathan was rough and boisterous, Elena is quiet, austere, and slow. Perhaps too slow for some tastes: The film begins with a long take of the balcony of an apartment house seen through the branches of a tree. For a long time, nothing happens. We hear only the bark of a dog and some street noises. Then we gradually become aware that we are watching the sun rise, reflected in the windows of an apartment. It's the sleek, modern home of the wealthy retired businessman Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and his wife, Elena (Nadezhda Markina). A couple in late middle age, they have been married for ten years, having met when he was hospitalized for peritonitis and she was his nurse. It's the second marriage for both, and each has a child from the previous marriage: he a daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), she a son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). But Elena resents the fact that Vladimir dotes on the spoiled playgirl Katya, complaining that she gets in touch with her father only when she wants money. And Vladimir disapproves when Elena gives the money from her own pension to support the unemployed Sergey, his wife, and their two children, 17-year-old Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) and an infant, who live in a cramped Soviet-era apartment house with a view of the cooling towers of a nuclear plant. Elena wants Sasha to go to university -- otherwise, he'll be drafted into the army -- and appeals to Vladimir for financial help. He refuses: Sergey should get a job and support his own family, besides, the army will be good for Sasha. Then Vladimir suffers a heart attack, and while recovering decides that he should make a will, leaving his estate to Katya and an annuity to support Elena. Before he can see a lawyer, however, Elena slips a couple of Viagra -- knowing that they are contraindicated for heart attack patients -- in with his other meds. After the funeral, the lawyer tells Elena and Katya that the estate will have to be divided between them. The story, by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, moves with the inexorable melancholy of the excerpts from Philip Glass's Symphony No. 3 that sometimes accompany it on the soundtrack. Zvyagintsev's refusal to urge along the story and instead to concentrate on the measured pace of Elena's life, gives the film a grounding in actuality, reinforced by Markina's subtle underplaying of her role. It's a chilly film in many ways, but in its depiction of a society defined by the extremes of new rich and old underclass, it has a decided impact.

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