With its divided society of rich and poor, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena pushes its morals aside for a murderous take on modern Russia.
Mother Russia by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Like his previous films The Return and The Banishment, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a suspenseful tale of family politics slowly descending into violence. And with its haunting opening of a white cube apartment, sentried by an ominous crow and fading into darkness in the crepuscular light, Elena is no different – a poetic and observational film of dark foreboding. The opening sequence is matched by another external fixed-camera sequence at the end, marking the film’s progression from wealthy isolation to unlawful occupation, as the elderly couple that live there are replaced by a young penurious family with their eyes on the main chance. As such, Elena offers up a broken mirror to Russia’s oligarchic elite and the criminal envy of those on the way up.
Elena is the story of a second marriage, between the eponymous heroine and her rich autocrat of a husband Vladimir. A post-perestroika union between Mother Russia and one of the Federation’s super-rich money men, it’s rife with filial tensions and conflicting obligations. Vladimir is estranged from his high-society daughter Katya, while Elena’s unemployed son Sergey squeezes his mother for money. And Vladimir’s tight-fingered grasp on the purse strings puts a strain on the retired couple’s relationship, as Elena balances her duties to her husband with the needs of her son. Like all good Russian oligarchs, Vladimir rules with an iron fist, happy to throw money at his disinterested daughter while refusing to give Sergey the money he needs to pay his son’s way out of military service and into university. Rubles aside, it’s a peaceable enough marriage, even if at first Elena does appear more like a servant than a wife.
They sleep in separate beds in rooms of unequal refinement, Elena relegated to cooking and running the house, while Vladimir conducts his business from his office and visits the gym. And as Vladimir drives his luxury car, Elena struggles across town in an awkward succession of public transport to visit her son and his family – by bus, train and foot. It’s an old-fashioned world of outdated gender roles, but as Zvyagintsev sketches their daily routines in circular rhythms, one day offers a new perspective on the last. It’s a simple and charming exploration of the domestic space, each room, nook and hallway first inhabited by one, then the other. They only really come together at the dining table, Vladimir at the head of the table, Elena kitchen-side – ready to do her master’s bidding. And while there is offscreen sex, intimacy is mostly diverted away from the couple’s interactions to the individuals’ private moments, two lonely planets circling in a galaxy made of gold.
Their orbits eventually collide when Vladimir suffers a heart attack and is rushed to hospital. It’s a crystallising crisis that reunites father and daughter, and sets the wheels in motion for Vladimir to change his will, leaving Elena only a lifelong stipend and an approbation to remain in their home. Her disinterest in money is suddenly alchemised into wounded injustice by a desperate sense of maternal duty, and it’s not long before she’s provoking another heart attack with a carefully hidden Valium tablet and setting fire to the unattested will. Elena’s loss of innocence provides the film with its moral keystone, and while the reasoning is both justified in her own mind and understandable to viewers beyond the fourth wall, she never quite comes to terms with her fall from grace. Freedom for her family comes at the price of a lifetime of guilt, a moral tarnation which slides like water off a duck’s back for the younger generation, but which irrevocably steals Elena’s peace of mind.
Perhaps the most monochrome of all of Zvyagintsev’s films, Elena is also the most eloquently biting. In its babel of conflicting self-interest, relationships come second place to family inheritance and money-grubbbing survival. Clawing their way up, Russia’s middle classes are torn between poverty and unemployment, the ghost of socialism and soaring aspiration. Russian oligarchs, whether elderly septuagenarians or cutthroat capitalists, aren’t exactly empathy-provoking victims, and Elena’s crime becomes a question of moral mastery rather than ethical wrongdoing. Upheld by a majestic performance from Nadezhda Markina in the central role, Elena is like a chamber play, a fleeting ethical firmament glimpsed between the rise and fall of a crow-black curtain. It’s shocking in its quiet, observational devastation, and for all its moral musings, a blood-quickening spectacle too.
Elena is released in the UK on 26th October 2012