Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova
Plot: When a sudden illness and an unexpected reunion threaten dutiful housewife Elena's potential inheritance, she must hatch a desperate plan
Awards: Won Special Jury Prize (Cannes - Un Certain Regard)
IN RETROSPECT (Spoilers: NO)
Elena sits in a bus, commuting between two families. As she looks out of the window, the sounds of city life are heard vividly – the bus’ engine reverberating, cars passing by, some honking and the occasional siren from an emergency vehicle. Then a music piece creeps up from within and makes itself heard.
It is so captivating and suspenseful, with an arrangement that would not sound out of place in a Hitchcock picture with a Bernard Hermann score. That music is Philip Glass’ ‘Symphony No. 3, Movement 3’. Parts of it are used four times in the film. Each time, it builds up a sense of foreboding, creating an ominous mood of karmic inevitability.
In Elena, writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev gives us a film that is slow-burning, noirish and quintessentially Russian. It is also terrific and his most accessible feature to date, coming after his stunning debut The Return (2003), and the decent, but meandering follow-up The Banishment (2007).
The beautiful opening shot of a bird on a tree branch holds for a couple of minutes, easing us from what seems like an utopian natural environment into a cold, possibly polluted world inhabited by people who are trapped in their own circumstance. We briefly see shots of smoke-billing nuclear power plants – huge and otherworldly, the ultimate harbinger of humanity’s doom.
One of these people, the abovementioned title character Elena, as played by Nadezhda Markina in a performance of subtle power, is forced to take matters into her own hands when her son’s family is in need of money. The other, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a rich, retired man who is married to Elena for two years, is in poor health and has an aloof daughter who rarely sees him.
We all know what’s coming, yet Zvyagintsev makes the proceedings dramatically gripping, focusing on characters’ inner feelings rather than how the plot is going to take shape. Themes of betrayal, guilt and class resentment are dwelled upon, but the overarching motif centers on the idea of sin.
The capability to sin is inherent in all of us, but what makes us sinners (or not) is a conscious choice. Zvyagintsev treats the consequence of sinning with cautious ambivalence, tapping into Elena’s conscience and manifesting itself in extra-eventful ways – a train grinds to a halt, a blackout occurs during a celebration etc.
Winning the Special Jury Prize in the Un Certain Regard category at Cannes, Elena is a quiet yet powerful film that slowly but surely pulls you into its bleak existence. Its power comes not from an epic dramaticality but from the conflict deep within the title character – at once haunting and alienating, with possibly no respite.
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