Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat May 05, 2012 7:28 am 
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Family issues

The Russian director Andrei Zvagintsev returns strongly to form in a tense domestic drama with class and money issues quietly brought to a brutal Darwinian boil in Elena. The film begins with a slow morning ritual in which the dowdy Elena (Nadezhda Markina) wakes up her rich older husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) and fixes him breakfast. The beautiful cinematography by Mikhail Krichman (who shot the director's first two films as well as Silent Souls) languidly shows off the handsome, spacious flat in a secluded quarter of Moscow whose modern elegance carries with it a certain coldness that is shared by the couple, who are loving, but not very warm toward each other.

The movie's slow unfolding reveals gradually Elena's situation, and Vladimir's. Vladimir has a dissolute, cynical daughter whom he generously supports despite her hostility and distance. Elena has a son from a previous marriage in a shabby area a train ride away, hard by a nuclear power station. She visits regularly with CARE packages and cash. Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) is out of work and lives with his wife (Evgenia Konushkina)) and two kids. The older, teenage Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), is an indifferent student who prefers video games and seems on his way to becoming a beer-swilling slob like dad. Elena, however, tries to protect these semi-dependents through cadging donations from Vladimir. When we see how he responds to a request for a substantial donation to bribe Sasha's way into university, it's obvious where things are going.

A heart attack while Vladmir is working out at the gym reveals details about how he and Elena first met (she was his nurse a decade earlier for a lesser but still serious illness) and also brings things to a head. When he asks to see her, Elena tries to bring back her husband's estranged daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) on friendly terms. When Elena later learns how Vladimir is planning financially for his possible demise, she is moved to take drastic action.

These superficial details can't possibly convey how rich and marvelously subtle -- as well as tautly suspenseful and thought-provoking, this film is from start to finish. It all comes through the dry, tight-lipped dialogue by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, which makes so much good use of few words; through the handsome images; unobtrusive, lived-in performances; and the superb pacing. While Sasha and Sergey and their lumpenproletariat limitations are not much elaborated, neither are they stereotypically demonized or victimized. Katerina is mysterious and full of fascinating contradictions. We don't know what cruelty or coldness or earlier parental errors may lie behind her hostility, but there is the natural and inevitable warmth of close family ties there too, as shown in her hospital room reunion with her father, the most many-layered and real of all the scenes, which starts with argument and provocation and ends with hugs and whispered declarations. Most complex of all is Elena herself, of course. Is she a saint, or a villain? Her final act brings not only pain and desperation, but its own kind of long ongoing purgatory. The last scenes are all the more telling because there's no spoken dialogue.

Zvyagintsev's debut, The Return (2003) was one of my favorite films of the early 2000's, an unexpected gift from an unknown. It evokes tense child-parent relations with a tale that's both like a mysterious fable and full of intense natural emotion and it's full of stark, painterly landscapes. The director's next film, The Banishment (2007; Film Comment Selects) was a disappointment. It's too complicated, long, and slow; it never quite comes together and is marred and weighed down along the stumbling way by heavy-handed religious messages. Elena is both a fresh start and a renewal of earlier stylistic strengths. This time Zvyagintsev has pared away all the heavy-handedness and gotten smart and contemporary, without ceasing to be universal. In fact here the issues are more powerful and universal than ever. This tale of greed, sloth and need, of a poor wife and an rich old man sitting on his money is as classic and biblical in its roots as any tale out of Chaucer. But the filmmaker has spoken enthusiastically of the story as a chance to explore Darwinian materialism in action, "the central idea of the early modern period: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost." The details of situation are even more fresh and contemporary when seen as an aspect of the lawless, cutthroat greed of post-Soviet Russia. Miraculously, though the issues are moral and fundamental, they are never obvious or unsubtle. Symbolism and eternal conflict come out simply rooted in action and terse dialogue. The Philip Glass score like everything else is sparingly and very effectively used. Once again Zvagintsev has made a great film and shown himself to be one of the best directors in the world today.

Surprisingly, Elena was shown out of competition at Cannes in May 2011 but it received the compensation of the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize there. Some other major festivals followed, including Toronto and Sundance. A Zeitgeist Films release, Elena will have its US premiere at Film Forum in New York Wed., May 16, 2012.

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