Spare, somber, gripping, and acutely observed, Elena is a slow-boil Russian noir; a grim, effective allegory of the daily whirl in Putinland; and an acidic portrait of an unhappy marriage in contemporary Moscow. It’s Russian New Wave cinema at its best.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a proletarian woman who met Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), an elderly business tycoon, in a hospital when she was his nurse. Their relational alliance is more like a morganatic marriage occurring nearly a century after the October Revolution. When Elena’s son from a previous marriage is denied subsidization to avoid compulsory military service, Elena is left with few options.
As readers of Chekhov, Gogol, and Dostoevsky are well aware, the pervasive melancholy of Russian culture long predates the Soviet era. Writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s first two features (The Return, The Banishment) were staged in timeless, nonspecific settings that recalled Tarkovsky’s more allegorical works. Elena, a wise and impeccably controlled drama that finds Zvyagintsev in outstanding form, takes place in the 21st-century Moscow built by the post-Soviet oligarchy, where the rich live in opulent detachment and the poor are clustered in crumbling Brezhnev-era apartment buildings plagued by skinhead gangs and irregular electricity.
Zvyagintsev makes the most of the ghastly settings, which include a backyard that ominously features nuclear cones and the compartmentalized living spaces that Hitchcock used to droll effect in Rear Window. It’s a moral vacuum where money rules, the haves are contemptuous of the have-nots, and class resentment simmers. Shuttles between the center of Moscow and its outskirts, Elena is grim enough to suggest that even if you were rich, you wouldn’t want to live there.
Zvyagintsev does a good impression of constructing a world while secretly spinning a web. The thought-provoking, pleasingly terse script by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin uses spare dialogue to devastating effect, and the long, penetrating takes have drawn further comparison to Tarkovsky. As Elena, Markina gives a captivating, outstanding central performance, and her titular character is almost more sympathetic than she should be.
Backed by a sparing Philip Glass score and fine photography from Mikhail Krichman, Elena is a breakthrough movie after its own fashion, a mysterious existential thriller that’s brilliantly acted and masterfully directed, without a second of wasted screen time. In its concentrated austerity, Elena often resembles a lost chapter of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Ten Commandments–themed Decalogue. It’s also an acquired taste, revealing a filmmaker in full command of his art, uninterested in catering to his audience.
In its withering admonishment of capitalism and the emotional mindset that comes with it, Elena suggests that in a land of schemers, the urban cloisters of the Russian elite are as self-sealing as the lowly masses’ stifling flats. In its chilly presentation of the beaten paths and icy ruts of Russian life in the capital after 1991, Elena reminded me of the Russian witticism that’s since been repeated in many varieties: Nothing could possibly be worse than Communism – except perhaps the way things are now.
Crime is the only thing that pays, at least in this crude Darwinian universe. In modern Russia, even family relationships are at the mercy of business. Yet beneath the noirish topicality of Elena lies a bone-deep unease and spiritual alienation, a preoccupation with sin that is at once quintessentially Russian and wholly archaic.
Resonant, perfectly formed, and deeply satisfying, Elena is a quietly powerful film about the lengths to which we’ll go for the sake of the people we love – and the depths to which we’ll sink for the sake of the people we hate. The mordantly ironic conclusion may remind you of Claude Chabrol: Elena’s family is finally welcomed into Vladimir’s apartment, as the cautious, controlling, abstemious bourgeoisie are overtaken by the heedlessly fertile lower orders, the temporary inheritors of a terribly weary earth.
In classic Russian art and literature, the rightful order is non-recoverable. We live in a fallen world, and whatever could go wrong already did so, generations ago. The road to hell is paved with good intentions; Elena presents us with characters who, oblivious or not, are hard at work on setting the asphalt. Some viewers may ask whether Elena will get away with her actions. A more appropriate question is: Dear God, isn’t there some better way to live?