Details: (M), 109 mins, In Cinemas 21 June 2012, Russia,
Synopsis: Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) are an older couple, they come from different backgrounds. Vladimir is a wealthy and cold man, Elena comes from a modest milieu and is a docile wife. They have met late in life and each one has children from previous marriages. Elena's son (Aleksey Rozin) is unemployed, unable to support his own family and he is constantly asking Elena for money. Vladimir's daughter (Yelena Lyadova) is a careless young woman who has a distant relationship with her father. A heart attack puts Vladimir in hospital, where he realizes that his remaining time is limited. A brief but somehow tender reunion with his daughter leads him to make an important decision: she will be the only heiress of his wealth. Back home he announces it to Elena. Her hopes to financially help her son suddenly vanish. The shy and submissive housewife then comes up with a plan to give her son and grandchildren a real chance in life.
Russian filmmaker returns to form with riveting family drama.
Zvyagintsev and his co-screenwriter Oleg Negin lay out their morality tale with patient clarity
With his bleakly affecting road movie The Return, Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev appeared on the international scene as a significant talent then disappointed many with his follow-up, The Banishment.
With Elena, a spare but sharply delineated urban family drama with the moral gravity of 19th Century Russian literature, it’s clear that debut was no flash in the pan.
I remember being only a few minutes into my viewing of his first feature and thinking that you could freeze the film at any moment and the framing would be unerringly right, the camera in exactly the most appropriate spot. In addition, the bleached-out blues were exactly the tones most appropriate for the story’s mood, the pacing of the editing just so. In other words, we seemed to be witnessing the birth of a born filmmaker.
Similar feelings struck while watching the opening minutes of his latest film, only where The Return wore the aroma of Tarkovsky, Elena (winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section’s Special Jury Prize) struck me as having something of the hushed intensity of Poland’s late Krzysztof Kieslowski, albeit without the extravagantly poetic flourishes.
Again, the relationship between parents and children is a central theme. The quiet opening introduces us to a well-to-do older couple, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), and the handsomely furnished apartment they live in. Nothing happens apart from the morning sun waking Elena as it falls across her face before she and her husband rise and go about their morning rituals.
Reduced to a bare description like this, the film sounds both austere and banal, yet Zvyagintsev and his outstanding cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman, make it riveting to watch, bringing small details to evocative life; details such as the brief moment where Elena stares at herself in the mirror, as if regretting what she sees and thinking about returning to bed.
The way the camera crawls around the apartment, capturing every last bit of unostentatious good taste, tells us everything we need to know about their social status. That they sleep in separate rooms, and barely speak to each other when they first rise, speaks volumes about their relationship (though we do see their sex life is still alive).
When they do talk to each other, they quickly clash over her desire to financially aid her grown son, Sergey (each has an adult child from earlier relationships). Vladimir, the partner with the money, behaves towards his wife, if not exactly rudely, then with the attitude of a patriarch laying down the law.
Although Elena has escaped her low origins by marrying up, Sergey is a layabout living on a tattered high-rise estate with a long-suffering wife and two children, including a teenage son in danger of being dragooned into the army. How can Elena escape from her husband’s contempt towards her lower class family and help her son and grandson? Herein lies the simple but effective plot, about which it is best to remain discreet. Suffice to say that events take a dark turn.
Zvyagintsev and his co-screenwriter Oleg Negin lay out their morality tale with patient clarity. If the characterisation of Elena’s son is one-dimensional (he’s a lazy good-for-nothing chauvinist and not much else), the patriarchal Vladimir is drawn with more satisfying complexity, especially his revelation of an unexpected capacity for love.
None of the characters has a monopoly on wrong-doing, but the sharpest irony is reserved for Elena. The story’s defining irony is that as the character with the best intentions, she sinks deepest into iniquity in their pursuit. Markina brings her to life with a performance of affecting subtlety – a turn that won her best actress in the Asia Pacific Screen Awards.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
Celebrate Australian filmmaking with this home-grown season. Starts May 25.
A month of movies with an edge. Saturday nights in April.