Elena | Movie review
A Russian drama keeps its cards close.
It’s unusual to see a director make an apparent left turn as sharp as that of Andrei Zvyagintsev, who won Venice’s Golden Lion for The Return (2003), an old-school allegory poised somewhere between the immediacy of the Dardennes’ parables and the solemnity of Tarkovsky. By most accounts, he became even more labored in the two-and-a-half-hour The Banishment (2007), unreleased theatrically here. With those precedents, it’s no surprise the contemporary-, city-set Elena has been hailed as an unexpected film, not least because it’s modest in scale. Perhaps too much so: The plot is so thin that more than half the running time has elapsed before the story we’ve been witnessing becomes clear. With its long, precisely composed takes of the title character’s home life, the movie straddles the divide between purposeful withholding and simply being slow. Still, there’s an exhilaration in seeing buildup pay off.
So stick with it. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is an aging housewife clearly bored with tending the angular, strikingly swank house she shares with Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a man of old money in a new Russia who, it’s implied, had quite the vivacious past. Still frisky, the two married late, after she worked as a nurse caring for him. They each have a grown child—his (Elena Lyadova) estranged and spiteful, hers (Alexey Rozin) cash-strapped and struggling to keep his growing family in line. Elena drums up sequences of surprising suspense (Vladimir’s lengthy trip to the gym) and thorniness, as when the patriarch’s daughter pays him an unexpected visit. The final note, too, is richer than the one this genre would generally select—and all the more provocative for its ambiguity.