Elena, 109 mins, rated M, opens 21 June 2012


(This is my reveiw as published in the NSW Law Society Journal, June 2012 issue)

Elena is the protagonist in a new mystery-drama from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. The film is remarkable for many reasons, not the least being that its plot is not typical of contemporary film.  It centres on a middle-aged woman, her relationship with her somewhat older husband, and their more-than-comfortable life together in central Moscow.

Elena (Nadezhda Markina, superb) is not young or glamorous, cute or quirky: she is simple, gracious and dignified. We see her wake early, alone, in a quite stylish and well-appointed apartment. We see her do her toilette at her dressing table. She may have once been pretty. Now, 60ish, she regards her own face with a practicality – almost a lack of interest – that’s intriguing.

Soon we meet Elena’s husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who is probably in his 70s, and seems unwell. At first Elena appears to act more like a maid than a wife. The relationship seems unequal. The film takes its time in revealing the nature of their relationship, and the troubles that lie ahead. Gradually we learn that this is a late second marriage for both of them, and they each have a child from their previous marriages. Who will inherit Vladimir’s fortune when he dies? His wife? His flesh and blood? The one with the most need? But when Vladimir suddenly decides to make a will, the stage is set for conflict, Russian style.

The film's music score includes four relatively short sequences by Philip Glass, which are used effectively, and sparingly, to underline the characters' deepening tensions.

Director Zvyagintsev burst onto the international film scene in 2003 with his debut feature The Return, a brooding allegorical mystery about two young brothers who reunite with a father who has suddenly returned after a 12-year absence. Zvyagintsev’s films are greatly influenced by one of the greatest Russian directors, Andrey Tarkovsky (Solaris, 1972, and Andrei Rublev, 1966). Tarkovsky’s films were contemplative and beautiful, often dealt with childhood, and had recurring themes of memory and dreams. His camera tended to move slowly, or stay still for long periods. He aimed to give the viewer a real sense of time: time passing, or time lost.

Zvyagintsev is not afraid to try similar things. In Elena, the opening camera shot is held for a very long time. It’s an extremely beautiful shot of an apartment with a verandah, seen through the bare branches of a tree. The camera does not move, but very slowly aspects of the scene emerge. Is the lens changing focus, or are our eyes simply becoming accustomed to the detail? It’s hard to tell, but that scene has stayed in my mind for weeks. Towards the end of the scene a crow appears on the branch. It calls. Another lands on the tree.  The director finally cuts. Remember those crows. Zvyagintsev is fond of symbolism. One of the posters for the film features a crow.

The story of Elena and Vladimir and their families allows Zvyagintsev, with co-writer Oleg Negin, to explore a Russia in disarray. Questions of morality clash with considerations of loyalty, family ties, a sense of entitlement, and need. Where does Elena’s loyalty lie? Zvyagintsev himself has said that this is a story of the survival of the fittest, and survival at any cost.

And its view of the future of society is bleak: as Vladimir’s daughter says to her father: “What’s irresponsible is producing offspring you know will be sick and doomed, since the parents are sick and doomed themselves. And doing it… only because everyone does it, because there’s some ‘higher meaning’ to it all, which is not ours to comprehend.”

This dark world-view could be straight out of film noir in the 1940s and 50s – in fact some have described Elena as a neo-noir. Be that as it may, there’s no doubt Elena is very Russian, but  also very beautiful, very clever, and very good indeed.