Elena

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Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 
  Elena
Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) are an older couple who met in their later years. She came from a modest background while his was one of wealth. She came into the marriage with a grown son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), and he with a daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova). When Vladimir is sidelined with a heart attack, he knows his days are numbered and decides to leave his entire fortune to Katerina. His wife, though, is not planning to let him leave her and her son penniless and she lays plans to get her fair share of Vladimir’s fortune in “Elena.”

Robin:
Director Andrei Zvyagintsey and scripter Oleg Negin bring us a quiet family drama that is also a tale of murder. Steeped in an old married couple’s day-to-day routine, each morning begins with Elena awakening, getting dressed, waking her husband and preparing breakfast. She is younger than Vladimir and we find out, as the story unfolds, that she was once his nurse and they married just two years before. It is a marriage of convenience rather than one of love.

Elena refuses to give up seeing her ne’er-do-well son and his family and makes the long journey to visit them, despite Victor’s objections – especially when she gives Sergei his hard earned money. But, this is all part of the daily routine for Elena, until Vladimir’s heart attack. This event brings his longtime out of his life daughter, Katherine, back into his life again. Vladimir, after a tender reunion with Katerina, declares to Elena that he must write the above-mentioned last will and testament. Suddenly, the life that Elena planned for her and her son is fast disappearing before her eyes and she decides harsh measures are needed.

“Elena” is a quiet character study of a woman facing an unexpected bump in the road of life and can either accept her new situation or do something about it. Nadezhda Markina and Andrey Smirnov convincingly portray an older couple set in their ways he a cold man and she seemingly docile. The catalyst of the heart attack shows the inner strength of Elena as she must make a life or death decision and Markina gives depth to her character. Director Zvyagintsey displays a deft hand with his small troupe of performers and has a talent for making family dramas with an edge. I recommend seeing his 2003 film, “The Return,” too. I give “Elena” a B.

Laura:
Dawn breaks outside of an elegant, modern Moscow apartment.  A woman awakens, alone, and goes about her morning ritual.  When breakfast is about ready, we learn she has a husband,  Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), sleeping in a separate room.  He asks about her plans for the day and we detect a long-running argument - his resentment towards her sponging son and hers towards his selfish daughter.  Vladimir is the one with the money, though, and he doesn't consider his wife's prior family any relation or responsibility of his, so the burden of her son's family hangs over "Elena."

For "Elena,"the 2011 Cannes Film Festival's Un Certain Regard Jury Prize went to cowriter (with Oleg Negin)/director Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose first work, 2003's "The Return," had won the Golden Lion at Venice.  That film also dealt with a son's vastly different relationship between mother and father, but that is a tenuous connection at best.  This film has more in common with Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman" imbued with a Russian male perspective on today's dog eat dog world, a breakdown of societal morality.

As in "Dielman," "Elena's" pace is relatively slow, focusing much of the time on daily routine.  Elena (Nadezhda Markina) greets each day with a heavy sigh, an appraisal of her fading looks and a brisk brushing and pinning of her hair.  She prepares coffee in a kitchen outfitted with every modern amenity.  She walks and takes public transportation first to the bank for her pension, then to her son's home in a run down tenement far away.  She brings two bags of groceries, charged to a card, then gives him cash, which Sergei's (Aleksey Rozin) wife, who treats Elena like visiting royalty, quickly collects.  There is a shiftless, teenaged son Sasha, a carbon copy of his dad, and an infant.  It is completely evident that Elena is being used, her daughter-in-law perhaps the only genuinely thankful recipient, but the family is in crisis - if they do not get enough cash to pay off university officials, Sasha will be forced to join the Army.  Elena promises to speak to her husband, although we can see she dreads the task.

Vladimir listens to his wife's requests and points out that her son already owes him money from three years ago and that he should man up and be responsible for his own family.  He wonders if Elena uses her charge card for them and she indignantly claims accounting for every ruble.  He apologizes and means it and says he will give her an answer in a week. There seems to be love and respect between these two, but wariness replaces the easiness of a strong relationship.

We see Vladimir spend his day at a posh gym which he has driven to in a sleek Audi sedan.  He notices the young women there, but when one notices him, it's because he is face down in the pool.  Elena rushes to his side at the hospital where he is recovering from a heart attack and we learn this is how they met ten years prior when Elena was his nurse.  He asks that she contact his daughter.  She does, but asks Katya (Yelena Lyadova) if she can speak to her first.  Katya hardly ever sees or calls her father, but is evidently supported by him.  Then the subject of a will comes up and Elena's maternal instincts kick into overdrive.  As in "Jeanne Dielman" again, men are used for money to support a son although criminal motivations spring from a different source.

Zvyagintsev has a very dispiriting point to make, but a valid one in these times of the 1% getting wealthier as budget cuts are dealt to those in need.  Do not mistake Vladimir as the 1%, though, even though he is the man of wealth - it is easy to side with his points except where it comes to his daughter.  Then again, in their scene together, father admires daughter's nihilistic view of the world and there is evidence she maybe cares for him more than she's admitted.  The difference between Katya and Sergei is that she's almost been bred into her attitude, she's honest about it and rejects the idea of breeding herself.  There is no equivalent excuse for Sergei who, despite his utter lack of income or ambition, has a third child on the way.  Pay attention, also, to the frequent television broadcasts - Vladimir listens to sporting events while Elena worships at the altar of celebrity with vapid reality shows.

Art director Andrey Ponckratov has created two points of view which reflect "Elena's" characters in Vladimir and Sergei's apartments.  One is sleek, with blue tiles and textured wallpapers set against dark woods, color-coded to Elena's simple but obviously expensive clothing.  Sergei's apartment is cluttered, all oranges and yellows.  The original score by Philip Glass suits both worlds, modern simplicity undulating with underlying tension.

"Elena" is a thought provoking, disturbing work that will not be to all tastes.  It's a slow, contemplative work which delves into sociological psychology, not the police procedural some might expect.

B+
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