Elena is riveting cinema, told with brutal, merciless precision by the Russian writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who last surfaced a half-decade ago with The Banishment. Unlike that film, his latest work, a quietly suffocating character study that takes on a renewed moral and social relevance with each passing scene, finds him in complete command of his gifts, from the cunningly compact screenplay — which, as with the previous film, he co-wrote with Oleg Negin — to the brilliantly nasty formal landscape, which gives everything an unsettling at-arm’s-length sheen.
The situation here, introduced with composure and patience, is that Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a former hospital caretaker with a working-class background, is married to the filthy-rich Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). The couple met years ago, when he was a patient under her watch, and they have since become daily companions and occasional lovers. From the shiny, rock-hard sensibility of their home, it’s possible to jump to the conclusion that this marriage is a stale, passionless arrangement. That’s not quite accurate. Even as the pitch-black crows, perched on bare, leafless branches, squawk in the background, there’s an observable comfortability and warmth in the way Elena and Vladimir interact.
It is, however, a warmth that’s very much tested on a usual basis, most recurrently by the fully-grown, previous-relationship offspring each spouse brings to the breakfast table. His daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), is a mutinous rebel, at least in Elena’s eyes, living off her father’s wealth without contributing much of anything to the world around her. But at least she’s independent, not actively bothering other people when she isn’t being bothered herself.
It’s Elena’s son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), who takes on the role of the pest. Sergey’s superb at three things in life — drinking, eating, and smoking — but he’s less qualified as a father and a husband, and as his son, Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), approaches adulthood, he lacks the funds to send the boy off to college. This will, in turn, cause Sasha to be enlisted in the army, a most unsatisfactory life-transition in the opinion of his parents. It’s Elena, then, who is forced into a precarious position, as Sergey — who hardly knows Vladimir, if at all — begs his sister to ask her husband for the necessary funds.
From there, Elena unfolds as a film of two halves, separated by one character’s callous decision. Structurally and thematically, Zvyagintsev’s floor-plan strongly resembles that of Michelangelo Antonioni’s canonized L’Avventura — the first half’s all slow-building set-up, punctuated by a surprise, while the second half descends into an abyss of melancholy reflection. In that way — especially on an initial viewing — the closing sequences of Elena, I think, can feel a touch static, with the final frame not embodying a noticeable leap-forward emotionally or thematically from what came, say, twenty minutes earlier. But it’s unquestionably the stuff of a self-aware vision — Zvyagintsev begins his film by depicting routine events, so why not end in the same fashion?
In the lead role, Markina is simply stunning, mixing down-to-earth compassion and tough-nosed realism to compelling, indicative lengths. She’s as polite as can be in every waking conversation she takes part in, but when it’s only her sitting in front her bedroom mirror, staring into her reflection with a leveled intensity, we know we’re in the presence of a commanding figure. The same goes for Lyadova, who gives the film’s most exciting performance as Vladimir’s daughter. Forget character specificity for a moment, although it is there — it’s simply the vivid confidence of Lyadova’s presence that’s thoroughly consuming.
Stylistically, Elena is a seamless creation, blending Philip Glass’s on-edge score, Andrey Ponckratov’s icy art direction, and Mikhail Krichman’s pristinely workmanlike lensing to enormous effect. The impression we’re left with, more often than not, is one of detached disturbance. The way Zvyagintsev stages everything, it’s as if these characters are organisms in a test-tube environment, dashing from moment to moment without completely realizing how reflective they’re meant to be of an incipiently heinous societal mindset. I’m not sure if I’m quite ready to declare Elena Zvyagintsev’s peak work to date — like most, I’m extremely partial to his debut, The Return — but it is, at the very least, a grimly smashing return to authority.
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