When he was introduced to an international audience with his first film The Return (Vozvrashchenie) at 2003 Venice Film Festival, Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev positioned himself as auteur worth watching for. His second film, The Banishment (Izgnanie), earned a competition slot at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, but was a slight disappointment, because it looked like a bigger (in terms of themes, budget and aspiration), but by no means better version of The Return. Fortunately, his third film Elena, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival as closing film of Un Certain Regard, is a fine indication that Zvyagintsev will not be remembered as one hit wonder.
As with his previous movies, Elena is also a family story. But this time it’s not about the relationship inside nuclear family, because the marriage between the two main characters, wealthy businessman Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) and retired nurse Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is second to both of them. So, the clash between them isn’t only because of their different backgrounds, but also because of family members from their previous marriage.
They met ten years ago when Vladimir ended up in hospital, where Elena was one of nurses taking care of him. Some would say they fell in love, but, both being widowers, it’s more accurate to say that they found what they were looking for. He found somebody who would be with him and not ask too much, and she found a man who could give her financial stability. Both are fine with this kind of marriage: Elena at one point says that she can explain every ruble she spends, and their routine is only endangered when they start to talk about children from previous marriages. Elena has a deadbeat son who needs money so that he can prevent Elena’s grandson from being drafted in army, and Vladimir has an estranged daughter, who is living a busy life and paying expenses with her father’s money. Everything changes when he has a heart attack and decides to write his last will in which he leaves almost all to his daughter and small amount of money to his wife.
With a calm pace and great instinct for detail, Zvyagintsev presents the story in a style that recalls the late Claude Chabrol. Not everything is explained, but within just a few introductory scenes every character comes alive and we get into a situation where there is no hero, but there is also no real negative character. The only question is who will be first punished for their sins.
Where The Return was a story from the soul, Elena is one that comes from brain. Every act is rooted in one’s behavior and, even when not really likeable, is completely understandable. An example is a scene of a short trip where Elena goes from her luxurious apartment, situated in wealthy Moscow residential area, to visit her son’s family in a small flat in the poorest part of town. It gives us enough to understand the conflict inside a woman who is much more maid than wife. Zvyagintsev is careful to ask provocative questions and avoid easy answers, even when his motivation is more than obvious.
How much could/should a person be different from his or her family? Is there a punishment for a crime? And, finally, what is crime? Those are all questions asked in Elena, but answers are left for viewers.
At same time revealing the most intimate human emotions and conflicts in society, Elena succeeds in avoiding obvious traps like moralizing and melodramatic scenes. It would be so easy to turn this story into a bloody thriller or a poignant example of the decadence of modern society, but with great performances from the leading actors and Zvyagintsev’s precise directing, it becomes much more — not too optimistic, but a masterful insight to human nature.
© FIPRESCI 2011