[ed note: reposted from Ology.com, where it originally appeared, and which no longer exists]
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a wonderfully shot, perfectly acted Russian drama, Dostoevskian in its moral poles and Chekhovian in its refusal to resolve them. Placing the viewer smack in the middle of the two classes of Putin’s Russia—the sleek rich and the crumbling poor, with nary a middle class between them—the film embodies with play-like economy the competition between forces of greed and the bonds of family, a struggle the latter can’t even hope to win.
Elena is a middle-aged former nurse who, late in life, has married up to a wealthy businessman she once cared for and now lives with in his modern condo; she dotes after him, he does a bit of ordering around, but they have a couple of scenes together that convey, if not the romance of a first marriage, the genuine affection of a second. But Elena’s family did not rise out of poverty with her; she brings them money in their slot of an apartment, stacked somewhere in a dilapidated building that looks like it might one day fall like Communism. Elena’s son has had two children of his own, accidentally, and the eldest is in danger of being sent to the army or prison if someone doesn’t pay for he and his woeful grades to go to college.
Elena and her husband Vladimir argue continually over whether he is expected to support her deadbeat relatives, but nothing is decided before Vlad has a heart attack. Rather than see the benevolent light and come around to Elena’s family, he instead gets a visit from his decadent daughter, Katya, a lissome animal who’s lived off his wealth her entire life while cultivating a bored appreciation of what Vladimir calls “the pleasures of life.” She tells Elena she doesn’t “give a flying fuck” that her father nearly died, but once in his presence the two reconnect over an essentially capitalist worldview of which both, in their own ways, are virtuosos: he has relentlessly earned money at the neglect of all else, while she has luxuriated in his profits long enough to know that money is all that matters, however much she faults him for believing that to the point of having ignored her. Father and daughter do not like each other, but they are of a piece: they have mastered Putin’s Russia while Elena and her kind have not, and this Darwinian verdict overtakes all else.
At home, Elena is reduced back to her servant role, preparing Vladimir’s meals and medications, but when Vladimir begins to compose his will, his decision about who gets all his money, his wife or his daughter, has already been made. Indeed, it was never really in question in this post-Communist society. Elena is ultimately a film about how class divisions—which Russia had tried, in name at least, more than any other country to eradicate—re-form in what Marx called the “reproductions of the means of production”: the family and all its tiny dramas. For all that Marx presented wide-lensed histories of dialectical materialism, he knew well that capitalism perpetuated itself every night in the home as much as it did across centuries in the factories. And if class divisions could be found at home, so too could class warfare, something Vladimir should have thought more about as he yelled his wife’s name across the house to bring him more coffee or close the blinds. When Elena warns him that one day “the first shall be last,” Vladimir, his will half-written at his side, rolls his eyes at the tired Biblicism, not knowing it will be one of the last movements he makes.
This is all executed without a moment of didacticism, though the characters do stand around having existentially-bare discussions about class and the pointlessness of breeding and that old standby, What It Means To Be Russian. Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin’s taut script, in which not a word is wasted, can take partial credit for this, as can the patient, confident cinematography. Yes, this is the type of film in which the camera lingers on a twig or chair or a table corner for > 10 seconds, and if you need “Top Chef”-esque jump cuts or else you break into apoplexy, this film may not be for you. The slow shots exude pretension at first, but they frame the action well, establishing us in the still, quiet world of day-to-day life so thoroughly that we feel trauma’s interruption as intensely as the characters do.
But within this narrowly-staged drama, the onus is ultimately put on the actors to convey the emotional complexity of their characters, and both Nadezhda Markina as Elena and Elena Lyadova as Katerina achieve this with aplomb. Lyadova portrays with relish the feisty intelligence lurking just beneath her sleepy, trust-fund facade, often through nothing more than a knowing look as she curves her supine self over the shape of a couch.
But Markina is so committed to her character that she seems at times to even surprise herself. As Elena prepares herself for her cataclysmic crime, Markina walks across the house she’s been living in for the past two years and nearly trips on a step. Elena would have known that step was there—she’s not only lived in the house but cared for it, and no doubt could draw a blueprint of it with her eyes closed. But the character, about to commit an horrendous action, is in unprecedented territory, and the step that she’s probably made one million times before suddenly trips her up. Little moments like these make the studied cinematography go down more smoothly, which is pretty much the definition of an actor carrying a film.
Elena is not perfect. It ends abruptly, both in Chekhov-like ambivalence and before the story feels complete. It’s also a bit heavy-handed with the symbolism: the flame of a candle Elena lights for a saint while praying for Vladimir to recover is repeated later in a sinister, guilty glow when she burns an important document; the power goes out in her family’s apartment, and a scene later her grandson, the one who so needs into college, starts a fight with and then gets pummeled by some thugs in front of the very power plant that cut off his family’s electricity. These symbolic rhymes make the film cohere, but too heavy a reliance on them undercuts the verisimilitude of such moments as when Elena strikes a match to burn the documents and misses on the first match. (What a great detail: doesn’t every first match go out before you light what you need to light?)
But these are minor quibbles. Elena so wonderfully throws us into a moral miasma, at once headline-specific and timelessly allegorical, that not only are the miniature faults forgiven but forgotten as the drama unspools itself. In the last shot, we see an entirely new family forming in Vladimir’s old living room, and indeed the dialectic of Vladimir’s wealth and Elena’s poverty do seem to have created something new. But, as Marx would tell you, this is hardly the end. In fact, he would say the violence of a few minutes before more likely marks what’s in store for Russia as it transitions into a rigged, atavistic brand of capitalism, one that will bring increasing strife between classes until crimes like Elena’s will seem less a private shock than history acting itself out.