While I’m sure professional critics and festival goers often get the experience of seeing movies that they know almost nothing about, that’s not really something that I have the luxury of doing. On the contrary, no matter how hard I try to avoid spoilers and the like, I often find that vast portions of the movies I go to have been revealed to me before I even buy a ticket. This was not the case with the recent Russian film, Elena, which I managed to go to with only minimal foreknowledge. My interest in the film was sparked by its placement in a handful of critics “best of the year so far” lists, otherwise all I knew about the film was that it was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of the 2003 film The Return) and what I could gleam from the film’s rather cryptic trailer, which doesn’t even reveal the film’s basic premise.
Nadezhda Markina plays the titular character in the film, she’s a middle aged woman in a long term relationship with a slightly older man named Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), with whom she lives in a well furnished and ultra-modern condo. It quickly becomes clear that Elena wasn’t born into this lifestyle; her son from a previous marriage (Alexey Rozin) and his wife live in a down-trodden room in what can only be described as a slum on the other side of the city. The divide between her old life and new life comes to a head when her grandson (Igor Ogurtsov) comes of age and needs money in order to get into college, if he doesn’t, he’ll more than likely be forced into the army. Vladamir doesn’t feel responsible for the well being of Elena’s family and doesn’t want to pay, especially when he feels that her children are irresponsible and more or less worthy of the lives they live.
The central dilemma and conflict between Elena and Vladamir is a fascinating one. I love movies which show difficult conflicts between strong willed people who all have a point. We saw just such a film last year in Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation, a film which took a familial conflict like this and saw it through to the very end. Elena doesn’t do this. Instead the central dilemma quickly becomes a stalemate and the movie continues on down a different direction after a mid-film twist. Make no mistake, there’s some intrigue to be found in this new direction, but we’ve seen stories play out like that before and this isn’t bringing anything overly new to that equation. I can’t help but wonder what the film would have been like if it had continued down its original path to the end.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s slow and controlled style is effective here, but at times I did feel like he went a bit too far with it. Had the film been crafted more conventionally it probably would have been 90 minutes long instead of 110 minutes, and most of that extra time is spent lingering on various objects and focusing more on the minutia of Elena’s life than a normal film would have. That’s not a bad thing necessarily but I do wish that it had been building to something… just a little bit more. The film has a very abrupt ending; it almost feels like there’s a missing third act to the film that never got filmed. I’m sure there are a variety of interpretations to explain why this anti-climax is integral to the film, but on this initial viewing it just kind of seemed like a letdown.
**1/2 out of Four