Written by Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Elena has been married to Vladimir for two years, having met him when he was hospitalized, and she was his nurse. This isn’t the first marriage for the two, but it is a comfortable, content one that can see them into their twilight years. Elena lived on the lower economic fringes of Moscow, and so entering Vladimir’s posh upper-middle-class lifestyle has been a blessing. However, Elena has a grown son with a family living in a decaying tenement. Her grandson Sasha has reached the age where, if he is not enrolled in university, he’ll be faced with compulsory military service. Elena implores Vlad for money she can give to her family, but he sees the whole lot as shiftless layabouts. Elena worries further when Vlad’s estranged daughter Katya comes back into his life. A moment will happen when she takes drastic action, but can she live with what she does?
Elena is the second film I’ve seen that was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the first being Loveless. In the years that have passed since Elena, Zvyagintsev has lost his funding from Russia’s cultural ministry. It makes sense because he presents an unblinking and scathing portrayal of life in this troubled European country. Check out my review of Loveless, a film that will leave you in a cold shock. Elena is not quite as emotionally brutal as Loveless, but it still retains that bite, that subtle examination of social class, seen from a disconnected eye that is jarring.
If you’re expecting a Crime and Punishment series of plot beats, then you’ll be disappointed. The first half of the movie is a character study of Elena, chronicling her day to day existence. She went from being a nurse to a housewife. Her routine is the same every single morning, waking and opening up the apartment, waking Vlad, making him food and tea. Every once in a while, Vlad gives her a pittance to take to her son, making sure he adequately chastizes her for indulging her offspring. Sergey, her son, is no sympathetic figure either. He’s an alcoholic and has had two children by accident. He is unemployed and only shows emotion and affection towards his mother when she hands over the rubles.
While Sergey begs his mother to get the money to protect his son, we follow Sasha out of the tenement where he meets up with a gang of friends. They make a beeline through the woods to where a rival group is sitting around a barrel fire, and things immediately devolve into brutality. Sergey says he’s worried about his son’s health and life if he were to be conscripted into service, yet isn’t this another kind of warzone already? We watch Sasha get his face pummeled when one of the boys he’s fighting pins him down.
The two most enigmatic characters in the film are the main female characters: Elena and Katya. The men are all base and indulgent of their minute to minute desires. Vlad refers to his daughter as a hedonist, only concerned with her pleasure and using his money to fund those outings. This is said as he sits in his million dollar apartment when a woman who waits on him hand and foot. His past time is laying in bed and watching television while Elena sits in the kitchen watching her tv. Only once do we see Vlad leave to go to the gym where our plot begins to kick in. Additionally, in the scene where Vlad rebukes his child for wanting to have a pleasure filled lifestyle, he pulls Elena into bed for an early morning tryst, the only time we see him show that level of affection to her. The presence of Viagra in the house becomes an important plot point and also signifies his own need to use money to fuel his indulgences.
While Elena lives in a massive metropolis, she doesn’t interact with others. It’s Vlad and Sergey’s family. We see other apartment dwellers only in quiet passing. She sits on the train by herself, casting her eyes away from people. She ends up at a hospital, and it is only then we see a real sense of taking charge coming out, her old ways as a nurse reviving. It is a realm where she has a solid footing; she knows the structures here. Elena’s main window into the outside world is television where she watches countless hours of reality programs and daytime talk shows with topics similar to Jerry Springer. Add to that, her implied upbringing deep in the bowels of the proletariat, and it makes sense she views the world with fear. So when she is faced with questions of survival and her family’s well being it isn’t a big leap that should become desperate.
There’s the first inclination to think Zvyagintsev has a made a film about the dangerous underclass but when I reflect on Loveless and what I know of his other work that doesn’t parse. In my limited knowledge of contemporary Russia (fueled mostly by my reading of Masha Gessen’s The Future is History) I think Zvyagintsev is examining the nature of survival and lack of charity in the country. There’s a sense of entitlement from the richest to the poorest here, and you can justify it all from a variety of ideological points of view. Vlad deserves his money and his current state of sloth; he worked hard for it. Sergey was born already disadvantaged, and his sloth and alcoholism are ways he self-sedates. Katya deserves every dime of her father’s fortune due to birthright. Elena deserves the money because she has been there for the last two years doing the work. There is no simple answer here, and the film leaves us with a constant underlying sense of tension. A musical cue by Phillip Glass is used multiple times in the movie to evoke that tense movement forward into the unknown. Zvyagintsev isn’t interested in telling us how to think about these people; he merely wants us to examine every angle, even the ugliest ones.