by Richard von Busack
(Elena tickets and showtimes here.)
The important Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's third film, Elena, is a kind of thriller—at least the urgent, cello-driven Philip Glass score mutters about violent tensions beneath the smooth surfaces. In the mausoleum-like flat of a rich Moscow citizen, joy is as firmly excluded as dust. The rooms in it remain silent except for the imbecile chatter of a TV. Its owner, the idle Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), is a bald, virile and ruthless type on the lines of Alan Arkin or Harve Presnell.
Vladimir's wife, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is a fat, sad woman in a rut of routine—waking in her single bed, tying her dull hair back at a vanity table and taking care of Vladimir's needs. Her day's errand is to fetch her pension money and deliver it far into the exurbs, where Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), her layabout son from an earlier relationship lives.
Elena's grandson Sasha is ripe for crisis; he's about to get scooped up into the army unless he can bribe his way into college for the deferment. And Sasha gives no sign of being anything but a sullen donkey, most interested in video games and seeing how far he can spit off the balcony.
Zvyagintsev's camera creeps up, catlike, on these Russians. He encourages speculation. How did Vladimir get his fortune? Perhaps not the clean way. The businessman's very beautiful and very cold daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), hates her father in that old-movie style, where the hatred is oversized and articulate. When her dad starts needling her to have a baby, Katerina denounces his "rotten seed."
Elena features uncommonly good sound editing—one of the best qualities of Hitchcock's thrillers, to which this film's been justly compared. The slow exploration of Elena's world is visually austere but alive with sound: the nattering of the TV, the croak of a crow circling in on the bare branches outside her balcony, the far-off howl of car alarms.
Many American movies give you a perfect tiny circle of life in a given class. We know what’s what about the $80 K a year set in New York or Los Angeles. By contrast, Zvyagintsev gives us a juicy sampling of the high and low life in his nation, through a neat blend of incisive character study, allegorical touches and implicit moral authority.
2003’s The Return, his first film, silhouetted the toxic parenting of an absentee father with a bigger paternalistic failure: the broken promises made by the Soviet Union to its children. One wonders why The Banishment, his second film, never arrived here. The plot of that Palme d’Or nominee was apparently based on a novel by William Saroyan, Fresno’s own.
If there's a glaze of melodrama on Elena, as in the scenes where Katerina denounces her father, this is ultimately the kind of melodrama that's nothing but common sense written loud. In this study of a nation coming apart like a badly sewn suit, the gentle but slightly cowlike Elena becomes the center. She's a kind of Mother Russia in the position of having to forgive both sides of the class war.