‘Elena’ by Andrei Zvyagintsev – who also directed the beautiful and sombre ‘The Banishment’ in 2007 – is a slow- paced, subtle drama, emblematic of modern Russia. Long gone are the days of the Soviets and successful business men can aspire to a very comfortable life of delicate interiors, flat screen TVs, Audi’s and Nespresso. This is the type of guy Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a fiftysomething from more modest background, got married to ten years ago, after they met in a hospital. Worn-out Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is now retired and keeps busy at the gym or watching football. Both Elena and Vladimir have children from their previous marriages, but while the loving Elena is very magnanimous and self-sacrificing towards her failure of a son – an unemployed, couch potato living with his wife and children in a crammed, shabby flat, on his mother’s pension – the insensitive Vladimir doesn’t see much of his ungrateful daughter – and doesn’t want to hear about Elena’s degenerate son. When Vladimir denies Elena financial support for her grandson’s studies – and to top it up tells her he will bequeath most of his properties to his daughter – it seems like both parents might be placing more significance in their own descendants than in their relationship…
By highlighting the constrasts between Elena and Vladimir’s families, Andrei Zvygintsev manages to brush up a fascinating account of today’s Russian unequal society. Vladimir’s selfish, money-driven life and his daughter (Yelena Lyadova) Katerina’s upper-class, snobbish attitude are opposed to Elena’s traditional, almost earthly values which push her to blindly support her lethargic son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) who essentially feeds on peanuts, beer, cigarettes and video games. Sometimes the parallel feels a little exaggerated, almost stereotypical – did Sergey have to live in a council estate right next to a nuclear plant to be more convincing as a social reject? – but it helps understand Elena’s awkward position in-between two worlds. She takes her move up the social ladder humbly and acts as Vladimir’s help out of duty, rather than love. Even if she enjoys the comfort of her luxury flat, she never feels quite at home and she would happily give it up if she could have her loved ones around her.
Andrei Zyvagintsev’s slow-moving camera lingers on Elena’s mundane tasks as she looks after the huge, pristine condominium flat and the sequence shots beautifully capture the passing of time as one grows older (and bored?). As in ‘The Banishment’ a lot of care has been put into the cinematography, with very aesthetic colours and lighting – and however bleak, the exterior takes give the film a well-needed breath of fresh air, in contrast with the sometimes stuffy interiors. Markina’s acting as Elena is precise and sensitive for what is a complex role. Rozin, as Sergey, has a more straightforward part, but is very convincing as the despicable, lazy opportunist. Together they represent the revenge of the underdog over Russia’s capitalists – but do they deserve their salvation? Zvyagintsev leaves the question unanswered.