Ex-nurse Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) are an older couple from different backgrounds who have married late, each with a grown up child. Elena's son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) is unemployed, unable to support his own young family and he is constantly asking Elena for money. Vladimir's daughter Katarina (Elena Lyadova) is a hedonistic young woman who has a distant relationship with her father. When a heart attack puts Vladimir in hospital, he realizes that his remaining time is limited and he engineers a reunion with his daughter, which leads him to make her his sole beneficiary. Elena's hopes to financially help her son are dashed. The shy and submissive Elena decides to take matters into her own hands to give her son and grandchildren a real chance in life.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Elena defies easy labelling, because the filmmakers do not stick to the predictable. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a middle aged wife and mother - but her son isn't her husband's son. Her husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is a dry old sausage who has been with her for the past 10 years, but they married only two years ago. She fetches his food and drink and they sleep in separate rooms (except on the rare occasion) in his expensive apartment.
Elena's son is a useless jerk who is having children he can't afford and living off his mother's goodwill - and her access to Vladimir's money. He and his family live in a grotty flat far from Elena, drinking and playing computer games with his equally useless 17 year old son Sergey (Alexey Rozin).
Elena has no pride where her son is concerned; indeed, she has a very controllable conscience, too. The moral questions posed by this film are numerous, but it doesn't pursue any of the consequences of the decisions that the characters make.
Director Andrei Zvyagintsev likes to keep the frame still most of the time, and let action take place in the frame. He also uses stillness as a way of encouraging us to contemplate not only what we see but what that means. Hence the extended opening shot through leafless branches to the outside of what we later learn is Vladimir's apartment.
He ends the film with an almost identical shot, but this time he pans slightly away from the windows where we see the remnant of the previous scene, to return to the original shot. Reminiscent of the way Michael Haneke began and ended his acclaimed film, Hidden.
All the performances are tangibly real and engaging, from the old couple to the offspring.
There are a couple of what I might call excursions in the film; one is a level crossing accident which provides a haunting image but if it is symbolic or metaphoric I am missing it. The other is a violent episode in which Sergey and his little gang of layabouts attack some homeless people on their patch. The significance of this is its relevance to Elena's actions and how we perceive each of them. Very Russian, very heavy.
The film feels like a short story stretched by its style: by the long, long shots, by the methodical style, the stillness and surface calm, often without underscore. Where Philip Glass enters the films it is with a persuasive note, its insistent repetition working on our emotions.
Elena is an acquired taste, a film that doesn't provide cheap thrills or easy, pat resolutions, nor any moral certainty. Those are the things that make it edgy and daring.
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CAST: Andrey Smirnov, Nadezhda Markina, Elena Lyadova, Aleksey Rozin, Evgenia Konushkina
PRODUCER: Alexander Rodnyansky
DIRECTOR: Andrei Zvyagintsev
SCRIPT: Oleg Negin
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Mikhail Krichman
EDITOR: Anna Mass
MUSIC: Philip Glass
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Andrey Ponckratov
RUNNING TIME: 109 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 21, 2012