From Russia, without love
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, June 22, 2012
There are crows -- or perhaps it’s merely a single, noisy bird -- cawing from time to time throughout “Elena,” a nicely noirish, cynically satisfying drama set in a gritty, urban Moscow that would otherwise not seem to be a haven for wildlife. The sound is really director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s version of Poe’s telltale heart, an auditory metaphor for guilt and/or foreboding. It’s an accusatory warning that something bad has happened -- or is about to.
Or maybe that it’s happening all the time, all around us, and we just refuse to see it.
“Elena” opens on the seemingly comfortable domestic routine of an older married couple: Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a wealthy retiree, and Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a former nurse. It’s soon apparent that, beneath the calm and untroubled surface of their lives, deep trouble is forming. (Thanks, crow!)
Both Vladimir and Elena have adult children from earlier relationships. Vladimir resents that Elena is constantly asking him for money for her shiftless son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin). For her part, Elena can’t understand why Vladimir is so quick to support his own wastrel daughter, Katya (Yelena Lyadova), from whom he is estranged.
Money, of course, is only part of it.
Vladimir -- a cold and remote man from a much higher station in life than his wife -- treats Elena more like a servant than a spouse. It’s an uneasy partnership made palatable by willful ignorance, on both parts, of their problems.
These problems come to a head when Vladimir suffers a heart attack and is reunited, tentatively, with Katya. Their reunion -- not to mention the reminder of Vladimir’s mortality -- introduces an element of financial and emotional instability into his relationship with Elena, upsetting the delicate balance on which it’s based. Suddenly, Elena sees just where she and Sergey fit into her husband’s life and future plans, and it isn’t pretty.
Then again, neither is what Elena decides to do about it, which shows her to be perhaps even colder than Vladimir.
In addition to our friend the crow, Zvyagintsev drops into the film more images, scenes and incidental allusions that suggest that people aren’t much more than animals. A shot of a dead horse, a savage beating and incessant TV chatter about health tips add to a sense of queasy morbidity.
The cast is strong, with each of the four main actors evoking a keen hunger for survival -- and the survival of their blood -- that makes them recognizably human, in the worst sense of the word. Zvyagintsev has a strong sense of visual and sonic style, marrying evocative visuals to pungent sound design in an engrossing thriller composed of a series of long, unhurried takes.
In a dog-eat-dog world, “Elena” argues, compassion is a relative and sometimes ugly thing.
Contains obscenity, violence and disturbing thematic material. In Russian with English subtitles.