109 mins, rated M, opens 21 June 2012
By MICHELE ASPREY, Lawyer
(This is my reveiw as published in
Law Society Journal, June 2012
Elena is the protagonist in a new mystery-drama from Russian director
Andrey Zvyagintsev. The film is remarkable for many reasons, not the
least being that its plot is not typical of contemporary film. It
centres on a middle-aged woman, her relationship with her somewhat
older husband, and their more-than-comfortable life together in central
Elena (Nadezhda Markina, superb) is not young or glamorous, cute or
quirky: she is simple, gracious and dignified. We see her wake early,
alone, in a quite stylish and well-appointed apartment. We see her do
her toilette at her dressing table. She may have once been pretty. Now,
60ish, she regards her own face with a practicality – almost a lack of
interest – that’s intriguing.
Soon we meet Elena’s husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who is
probably in his 70s, and seems unwell. At first Elena appears to act
more like a maid than a wife. The relationship seems unequal. The film
takes its time in revealing the nature of their relationship, and the
troubles that lie ahead. Gradually we learn that this is a late second
marriage for both of them, and they each have a child from their
previous marriages. Who will inherit Vladimir’s fortune when he dies?
His wife? His flesh and blood? The one with the most need? But when
Vladimir suddenly decides to make a will, the stage is set for
conflict, Russian style.
The film's music score includes four relatively short sequences by
Philip Glass, which are used effectively, and sparingly, to underline
the characters' deepening tensions.
Director Zvyagintsev burst onto the international film scene in 2003
with his debut feature The Return, a
brooding allegorical mystery about two young brothers who reunite with
a father who has suddenly returned after a 12-year absence.
Zvyagintsev’s films are greatly influenced by one of the greatest
Russian directors, Andrey Tarkovsky (Solaris, 1972,
and Andrei Rublev,
1966). Tarkovsky’s films were contemplative and beautiful, often dealt
with childhood, and had recurring themes of memory and dreams. His
camera tended to move slowly, or stay still for long periods. He aimed
to give the viewer a real sense of time: time passing, or time lost.
Zvyagintsev is not afraid to try similar things. In Elena, the
opening camera shot is held for a very long time. It’s an extremely
beautiful shot of an apartment with a verandah, seen through the bare
branches of a tree. The camera does not move, but very slowly aspects
of the scene emerge. Is the lens changing focus, or are our eyes simply
becoming accustomed to the detail? It’s hard to tell, but that scene
has stayed in my mind for weeks. Towards the end of the scene a crow
appears on the branch. It calls. Another lands on the tree. The
director finally cuts. Remember those crows. Zvyagintsev is fond of
symbolism. One of the posters for the film features a crow.
The story of Elena and Vladimir and their families allows Zvyagintsev,
with co-writer Oleg Negin, to explore a Russia in disarray. Questions
of morality clash with considerations of loyalty, family ties, a sense
of entitlement, and need. Where does Elena’s loyalty lie? Zvyagintsev
himself has said that this is a story of the survival of the fittest,
and survival at any cost.
And its view of the future of society is bleak: as Vladimir’s daughter
says to her father: “What’s irresponsible is producing offspring you
know will be sick and doomed, since the parents are sick and doomed
themselves. And doing it… only because everyone does it, because
there’s some ‘higher meaning’ to it all, which is not ours to
This dark world-view could be straight out of film noir in the 1940s
and 50s – in fact some have described Elena as a neo-noir. Be that as
it may, there’s no doubt Elena is very
Russian, but also very beautiful, very clever, and very good