Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev.
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev & Oleg Negin.
Starring: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrey Smirnov (Vladimir), Elena Lyadova (Katerina), Aleksey Rozin (Sergey).
Elena is a film that I found to full of surprises. When the movie began, I thought I knew precisely where everything was going to go – and why we would end up there. And while the events of the movie play out pretty much how I expected them to, their meaning is a hell of lot deeper, and more troublesome, than I expected. And I mean that as a compliment. I thought this was going to be another screed about the rich being greedy, and the poor having to scratch and claw their way for everything – but it’s much more than that.
The film stars Nadezhda Markina in the title role, and it’s a remarkably subtle performance. Years ago, when she was a nurse, she had to take care of the rich Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in his home. Their relationship has changed over the years, but only in its name, as Elena is no longer his nurse but his wife. But they still have separate bedrooms, and she still pretty much waits on him hand and foot. Vladimiri is rich, and Elena is not, and even though they are married, that hasn’t changed. The money is still his and his alone. Yes, he supports her – but only her. He doesn’t want her to give any money to her son from a previous marriage – although she does give him her pension since Vladimir supports her. Even when she comes to him saying she needs money to help her grandson out – if he cannot afford to pay for college, which his family with an unemployed father and a new baby at home cannot, he’ll have to join the army – Vladimir rejects the idea. Her son should support his own family – Vladimir married Elena, not her whole family. When Vladimir has a heart attack, he decides that it is finally time to draw up a will. Most of the money will go to his single, childless daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova), but Elena will be given an annuity with monthly payments which he is sure will be more than enough to see to her needs. He tells Elena this the day before his lawyer is going to come to see him and draw up the will. So what do you think Elena will do?
There are certainly elements of noir at play in this movie – Roger Ebert suggests that the movie could have been made in Hollywood in 1940s with Barbra Stanwyck in the title role, although I find it hard to believe than Stanwyck would ever play a woman who allows herself to be treated like a doormat like Elena does. The film did call to mind Mildred Pierce however – about a woman who sacrifices everything for her ungrateful bitch of a daughter. And writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev referenced Woody Allen’s Match Point as an inspiration – that film of course was another film about murder and class warfare, which ultimately ends with the main character getting away scot free to start his new life.
But Elena is more than a noir as well. It becomes a film about modern Russia – just a few decades removed from Communist rule, this Russia is still not a place you would to live. Vladimir’s house is Moscow is big and modern – but also cold and unfeeling, just like he is. Yes, this is a movie where the rich man is a greedy bastard – he could easily afford to help his wife, but won’t. It’s his money, he earned it, and he’s keeping it. But the poor don’t come off much better. Elena’s son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), really does seem to be the lazy, good for nothing layabout that Vladimir accuses him of being. His pretty wife seems a little dull and certainly not to bright – it’s hard to argue with Vladimir when he says if they cannot afford to have children, they should stop having them. And the grandson Sasha, is a violent, lazy, ungrateful brat. You could feel sympathy for these people if they were working hard to try and make ends meet, but they aren’t. They’re looking for a handout.
But there are two characters who are more complicated than they at first appear to me. One is, of course, Elena, who surprises herself by what she is capable of doing – and for a while, you feel good for her as she seems to want to stop being used as a doormat like Vladimir has been doing for years now. But then she falls right back into another smothering, domestic life – one that is perhaps even worse than the one she was living. The other character is Katerina, Vladimir’s daughter. We get a first impression of her just during a conversation between Vladimir and Elena – where he accuses her of being “just like her mother” and only caring about life’s luxuries and not the work that needs to be done to get them. And Elena is bitter with her because she doesn’t have to work – she has everything handed to her. When we first meet Katerina, we seem to have our suspicions about her confirmed – that she is nothing but a spoiled, lazy rich kid. But her first appearance is in a conversation between her and Elena – who obviously doesn’t like her. When she has a conversation with her dad, she comes across as much more sympathetic and likable – you almost feel sorry for her as she is trying to turn her life around. Besides, it’s not like she’s wrong about Elena or why she married her father.
Elena turns out to be a much more complex film than it appears to be at the beginning. What could have just been another modern noir, but this one is Russian, becomes something greater than that – and more complex. This is a film to track down.