Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Elena is a different kind of thriller. It isn’t playing at your local multiplex; in face, as of this writing, it is only playing in seven theaters in the country, but is worth seeking out if you like your drama a little meaty without telling you exactly how to feel. I saw this movie a week ago, and on my walk hope I wasn’t sure how I felt. It was kind of a frustrating experience and one I didn’t totally feel comfortable reviewing right away.
So I thought about it for a while, and after a few false starts I started to write. What I discovered was that I had much more respect for and admired this movie more than I had originally thought.
Nadezhda Markina plays the titular Elena, a widowed nurse who fell in love with Vladimir, played by Andrey Smirnov, a patient she was taking care of. The movie takes place in the present after they have been married for about a dozen years. Elena is from a different world than Vladimir though. She is his wife, but still has the caretaker mentality. She wakes up, cleans, makes breakfast, and then wakes up Vladimir as if he is still her patience. These long scenes, coupled with other long scenes of Elena traveling to the slums to visit her son and his family, really drive home the duality of how she lives.
These scenes also do a great job of setting up a lot of characters’ personalities without doing any kind of voice-over explanation that might be present in a more mainstream American movie. Just through their actions alone we get what kinds of people we’re dealing with – a sure sign of great directing. Filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev has crafted a very real-world type of thriller that spends as much time setting up characters and situations as he does with the actual thriller part. When the last act rolls around you are much more invested in the characters and moral questions being raised than you would be otherwise.
Elena is set in the gloomy and seemingly always wet Russia. Elena’s son can’t support his own family and is constantly asking her for money. Vladimir is sick of it and refuses to help Elena’s son and family. Because of this, Elena’s grandson will be forced to join the military. After a heart attack, Vladimir’s own daughter comes out of the woodwork. The two have a strained relationship, but after looking death in the eyes Vladimir comes to a realization that when he dies his estranged daughter will be the sole heir to his fortune. This forces Elena to choose between her life as a meek housewife or going forth with a desperate plan to help her son.
Nadezhda Markina gives a fantastic and naturalistic performance as Elena. Everything we need to know about her we can see in her face. There are no tricks going on here. The directing is confident and that can especially be seen in the performances. Famed composer Philip Glass also turns out a rather hypnotic score that doesn’t overpower the film, but rather supports in in the way all great scores should support films.
Looking back over this review, nothing has surprised me more than the positivity I’ve written. I remember being so confused as to why “Elena” had received such glowing praise from critics and won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. All I saw was a story that I felt I had seen in countless other thrillers, except this time it was set in Russia and had a lot of scenes with people not doing anything necessarily important. But in thinking about it, I have realized is was all important to shaping the world and, of course, the characters.