Directed By: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Written By: Oleg Negin
Starring: Nadezdha Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Aleksey Rozin, and Yelena Lyadova
Director of Photography: Mikhail Krichman, Editor: Anna Mass, Art Direction: Andrey Ponckratov, Original Music: Philip Glass
The two worlds that Elena, the elderly and titular protagonist of this austere and intelligent Russian drama, inhabits couldn’t be starker. On one side is the sterile, almost silent world that her and her husband dwell. The only noises are the sounds of coffee grinding or doors sliding open, as well for the constant cawing of black crows (a foreboding sign of things to come). Everything feels sterile and in complete order, designed for minimal chaos to produce maximal efficiency. And then there is the home of Elena’s son Sergey, which is littered, constantly bombarded by video games and television noises, and cramped. This is how the other half lives, and it is not to be trusted.
In what would seem rare today in Hollywood filmmaking, Elena is a rare film that is not only surprisingly conservative in its politics but highly thrilling. Liberal films—or at least films that tout liberal ideas—are a dime a dozen, most of them barely interested in political ideas. But director Andrei Zvyaginstev and screenwriter Oleg Negin have deliberately taken on class in what spins into a Hitchcock-like thriller, and brings such an apt and nuanced hand to its political statement, cleverly disguised as a morality tale. It’s the type of great filmmaking that could easily convince you of its talking points.
Shot often in quiet, still wide shots, Zvyaginstev allows for the drama to unfold slowly, only clueing us into the particulars of Elena’s life. We soon learn that she and her her husband, Vladimir, have been married for only a short time, and both have children from previous relationships. Elena’s son is a mess, young but already with two children (one infant, one quite unruly and undisciplined). Sergey always seems to get the best of Elena as well, asking her to get money from Vladimir to pay for his son’s college, so he can avoid the army. Vladimir’s own daughter Katerina is her own special mess, but a stroke of luck (literally) brings the two together, which puts the money Elena needs in jeopardy.
The film uses the stillness of the camera to chill us at every moment. A choice piece of music composed by Philip Glass repeats throughout the film, like a foreboding sign from God coming down and forcing these characters into tough moral decisions. Zvyaginstev is content to let the camera linger, forcing these characters to retreat into their thoughts and often the darkest parts of their souls. This is allows Nadezdha Markina, who plays Elena, to give her character terrific subtlety through her dynamic expressions, which seem to reveal both everything and nothing at the same time. Markina’s withered look gives the film its anchor as we watch her world collapse, never shouting, but always reacting to the trembling chaos around her. The comparison to Hitchcock becomes quite apt as the film is often darkly comic and sadistic in its examination of these characters, showing little sympathy for those who break beyond the normal boundaries of morality.
The fact that I fell in love with Elena and that perhaps Mitt Romney could as well speaks to the power of the filmmaking, despite the very conservative message at the heart of this Russian drama. While a late visual metaphor of a fallen horse is a step too far by Negin, the rest of Elena is so sublimely controlled and morally complex to make this one of the exciting thrillers of the year, and a dangerous look at how as much our children fail us, it is us who often fail our children more. The film’s final few shots put shocks through one’s bones of the horrors we have seen, as well as those yet to pass. Elena is the rare look at the 99% from the point of view of the 1%.