Elena is the third feature film by Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev. He came to prominence with his startling debut The Return, an enigmatic, visually striking film about a family road trip. His reputation was sealed with an assured sophomore effort entitled The Banishment (you can see he has a penchant for mysterious titles) and whispers of an heir to Tarkovsky were heard. So Elena comes with a hefty set of expectations attached.
This parable-like tale concerns Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a steely housewife, caught between her rich husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and layabout son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). Elena used to care for Vladimir, but has now been married to him for 10 years. The couple live in a luxurious city apartment, while Sergey and his family live in poverty in a small deadbeat town. The director effectively juxtaposes these two opposing existences, perhaps making a point about the gap between the wealthy and the poor in modern day Russia.
Sergey urges his mother to acquire money from Vladimir, his stepfather, in order to pay for his obnoxious son to go to uni. Vladimir, a grumpy, stingy man, balks at Sergey’s laziness and refuses to cave in to the demands, not even to sate his wife. Elena is caught between two stubborn men, and when Vladimir starts to fall ill, she faces a dilemma about whose side she is going to take. Added into the mix is Vladimir’s estranged, hedonistic daughter Katerina (a sharp-eyed Yelena Lyadova).
The performances are routinely impressive, Markina especially working with a difficult, nuanced portrayal of loyalty and guilt. The film as a whole feels very enigmatic, very unshowy. At various points there are references to religion, and morality seems to be the major theme of the film. Aesthetically and thematically I would say this this is weaker than Zvyagintsev’s previous two films; the bleached out, expressive landscapes have been replaced with a more banal urban look. Despite this, the film is very accomplished and compelling, the understated moralistic dilemmas leaving it a quiet power.