After 2003’s THE RETURN and 2007’s THE BANISHMENT, Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev has honed his craft to near-perfection with the exceptional ELENA– a sharp, noir-ish domestic drama that deftly marries an unsettling study of family ties with a damning indictment of a society fostered by capitalism.
The eponymous Elena is a retired nurse, married for ten years to a wealthy former patient – Vladimir – with whom she now shares a luxurious city apartment. Each has a child from a former relationship: while Vladimir’s daughter Katya is a spoilt, callous party-girl who attracts Elena’s disdain, stubborn Vladimir holds similar scorn for Elena’s feckless, jobless son Sergei, who lives with his wife and two children in markedly less-affluent surroundings across the city. When Vladimir falls into ill-health, the issue of inheritance looms over the family. With Katya and Sergei both depending on receiving a share of the money, and yet both showing themselves to be equally undeserving of the financial boon, an ugly and disconcerting resolution becomes inevitable.
While not entirely devoid of sympathy towards his sorry subjects, Zvyangintsev is a decidedly stern observer. Both Sergei’s cramped flat, flanked by giant concrete cooling towers, and the cold modernist design of Vladimir’s apartment provide oppressive backdrops to the dramatic action, which is captured through scrupulously framed long takes. The film’s socio-political subtext, meanwhile, is drawn out through subtle detail: recurring gestures – such as the unceremonious spitting over a balcony and the silent, robotic munching of nuts performed by Sergei and his family – pointing to a stagnant cycle of inertia destined to repeat itself.
Shot with spotless, arresting lensing that almost transcends the film’s murky themes, and underscored by a spiky Philip Glass soundtrack, each scene of ELENA fairly hums with tension. And while there are no explosions of drama, a calibrated tone of disquietude is maintained right to the satisfyingly apposite note of pessimism sounded at its conclusion. If not quite a full-on polemic against modern Russia, ELENA is certainly a coolly cerebral and gracefully realised study of the darker side of humanity, and its relationship with money.