“Elena” is the third and most recent film from Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev who absolutely blew me away with his debut film “The Return”. His latest has just seen a cinema release in Australia and I rushed to see it hoping to be as thrilled by it as I was “The Return”. Similar to “The Return” I guess you could classify “Elena” as a domestic thriller where Zvyagintsev uses the genre to look within family dynamics in present day Russia, as well as the significant gap between the haves and the have not’s.
Elena is a middle aged woman who is married to a wealthy older man, Vladimir. It is the second try at marriage for both these people and they seem to be doing a fair job of it, being married for almost ten years already. The two met when Vladimir had to go to hospital back then and the nurse looking after him was none other than Elena, the rest, they say, is history. While from the outside the marriage certainly looks happy, it is soon apparent that all is not what it seems, as Elena looks more like one of the hired help where her daily routine is filled with domestic chores rather than a woman this man loves and adores. The two even sleep in separate rooms, although sexual relations between the two does exist from time to time, thanks to the help of Viagra. While there doesn’t appear to be a huge amount of love between the two, there certainly is respect and the two of them get along very well together, but they seem more like friends than lovers. The only bone of contention between the two is the fact that Vladimir hates being expected to look after Elena’s family just because he is wealthy. Elena has a deadbeat son named Sergey who in turn has a deadbeat son of his own named Sasha who is more content with sitting on the couch playing video games than looking for a job to provide for himself. His grades are so poor that unless certain college officials are bribed, Sasha will be heading straight towards a forced stint with the military. Sergey himself cannot afford the bribes and as such he leans on his mother to ask Vladimir to pay. Vladimir is disgusted with this and exclaims that a military upbringing is exactly what the hapless Sasha needs to learn some discipline and responsibility. Although Elena does not disagree completely with this, it frustrates her that Vladimir will not help Sasha but will do anything for his own daughter, who is very much like Sasha herself, has no responsibility and does anything if it means a good time whatever the cost. One day during his regular visit to the gym, Vladimir has a heart attack. He survives the attack but after it he realizes that he needs to draft a will to ensure his daughter’s wellbeing if something were to happen to him in the future. When Vladimir explains to Elena that he is leaving the majority of his fortune to his daughter, their relationship becomes immediately frosty as Elena understands that her own family will be left to fend for themselves. Blinded by anger and the love for her own family, Elena will set into motion a series of events that will change everyone’s lives in the very near future.
Very similar to “The Return”, Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” is an immaculate piece of cinema, it is so well put together. Just from these two films it is obvious that Zvyagintsev knows how to build suspense and to keep the suspense throughout the film. In my review of “The Return” I mentioned how I thought Zvyagintsev had been influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, and again in “Elena” I felt the presence of the master once more. Not only in the building of suspense but a whole scene felt like it had been lifted from Hitchcock’s masterpiece “Pyscho”. In regards to the suspense, Hitchcock knew that the suspense leading up to a moment was more important than the moment itself, and Zvyagintsev seems to have learnt this too. Throughout the whole film he creates this level of suspense that actually had me mesmerized while viewing it, I was just in there, going along with the film watching in disbelief.
On a genre level, “Elena” works as a nice little thriller, but at the same time Zvyagintsev appears to be making a number of statements about Russia today and in that regard he comes across as a little angry. First and foremost is the obvious and enormous gap between the haves and have-not’s in today’s Russia. At the beginning of the film, the camera slowly goes through Vladimir’s house, with its large rooms that appear to be fairly empty filled with a minimum of designer furniture. Later when we visit Elena’s son’s apartment it is a shock to see just how small it is with the whole place no bigger than one of the rooms in Vladimir’s house. What is interesting to note is how comfortable Elena appears to be at her son’s house, seeing as she has come from this area, while she still appears quite foreign in her own home. What appears to be certain is that Zvyagintsev has a large amount of disdain for the younger generation of today’s Russia, as they are all represented as lazy and lacking in responsibility. They all expect others to look after them and get them out of their own troubles, with no one willing to actually work to improve their own situation, everyone is looking for a handout. Other subjects Zvyagintsev tackles are the conditions that the poorer members of the community have to face such as ridiculously high education costs, regular power outages in an attempt to save power, and an increase in gang warfare. The latter of these is tackled near the end of the film during a black out, where Sasha goes downstairs with his friends and basically attacks another gang. Personally I felt this moment to be out of place with the rest of the film and just didn’t work for me, it almost appeared to come from an altogether different film. Even visually this scene is different from the rest of “Elena” as the normal controlled camera work suddenly becomes handheld and shaky as it follows the men as they initiate the fight.
Speaking of the visuals, once again “Elena” looks sensational. Zvyagintsev has his regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman perform the duties again and his work here is gorgeous. During his review for “Elena”, David Stratton mentioned the symmetry of the shots and how impressed he was by it, and he is so right, the shots have been put together with so much thought in regards to the symmetry and it looks amazing. Both Zvyagintsev and Krichman have a brilliant eye in regards to colour too and I especially loved the light greens and blues in Vladimir’s house. I must admit that I am shocked by the fact that Mikhail Krichman is not more well known because his work is just stellar, and I hope that he lenses more films outside of the ones that Zvyagintsev makes, although I hope they continue to stay together as they make a great team. Another thing I loved about “Elena” was Philip Glass’s amazing score. I know very little about music, but to me the score seemed very simple with it being just one reoccurring theme, but the way Zvyagintsev uses the music and the times he uses it just adds to the building suspense. It really is a beautiful piece of music because it starts quietly and then gets louder only to become quieter again and once again louder. I know that doesn’t explain it too well but you will understand what I mean when you hear it, and if you watch the trailer for “Elena” Philip Glass’s music is featured prominently throughout.
Something Andrei Zvyagintsev appears to be a master of is eliciting brilliant performances from his cast, and he does it again here with “Elena”, with everyone giving amazingly nuanced performances. Both Nadezhda Markina and Andrey Smirnov, who play Elena and Vladimir respectively, have been receiving the majority of the acting plaudits and they are much deserved because both are thoroughly spectacular in their roles but I want to highlight the performance of Elena Lyadova who has the brief role of Vladimir’s daughter Katerina. Again, like in “The Return”, I have been blown away by a minor female performance. Lyadova is only in a couple of scenes but she steals every one. The scene when she visits her father is just outstanding as she starts the scene so angry and dismissive of her dad, but by the end of the scene she has warmed up as the two reconcilliate. Watching her go from dark to light is just a joy. In fact, Andrei Zvyagintsev was so impressed by the performance of Elena Lyadova himself that he has mentioned he regrets the fact that her role was so small. Hopefully this means that the two of them will work together again in the future.
Overall, while I was not blown away by “Elena” like I was “The Return”, I still think that it is a very good film. Visually the film is something to behold, and none of the actors put a foot wrong in their roles, it is just I didn’t feel the ending was as powerful as I was hoping it to be. The suspense is palpable throughout, and I found myself mesmerized during parts of it, but I just found the pay off was a little lacking. While I like that Zvyagintsev is tackling issues that are important in today’s Russia, I also felt that these were forced into the story and weren’t integrated organically, and thus didn’t work as well as they should have. After just viewing two films from him, it is obvious to me that Andrei Zvyagintsev is a major talent in the world of cinema and he has quickly become one of my favourites, and as such I recommend “Elena” even though it didn’t reach the lofty heights of his debut feature “The Return”.