‘Elena’ Teases Twists But Chooses Character Study Instead (Russia)

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The goal of this column has always been to explore international cinema from all around the globe. To that end I’ve been an inconsistent tour guide as our destinations haven’t been as evenly spread about as they could have been. My own preferences lean towards traditional Asian, Western European and South American cinema which means Foreign Objects explores places like Africa, Eastern Europe or India very rarely. Russia is a huge country with a long-standing film community, but in our 131 installments we’ve only visited there twice… first for the abysmal Philosophy of a Knife and then for the mediocre Alien Girl.

Which probably explains why it took so damn long for me to return…

Elena is a fifty-something house wife to a well-off retiree named Vladimir. Together just two years, their relationship is more an extension of how they met than a true marriage. She was a nurse, he was a patient, and now her caregiver role continues. She sleeps on a couch, wakes early, keeps the high rise apartment clean and prepares Vladimir’s breakfast, lunch and dinner. Both have grown children from previous marriages, both of them irresponsible in their own ways, but while Vladimir has a soft spot for his daughter he harbors nothing but disdain for Elena’s son. A heart attack sidelines the old man, and with callous forethought he informs Elena that he’s going to change his will to make his daughter sole inheritor.

What’s a mother with a son and infant grandson in need to do?

“It’s not about the money.”

Elena is a slow moving film, but even at this speed it seems pretty clear where it’s going. Except it’s actually not. What feels like a setup for a slow-burn thriller filled with manipulation, deception, greed and malice is actually a sharp look at class distinctions and character. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) has traded a life that left her financially wanting for a marriage that sees her absent only love and respect. A hefty price for some, and one she willingly pays, but when a situation arises with her son’s family she sees an opportunity to secure financial stability and escape this stifling domestic tar pit.

Or does she?

Director Andrei Zvyagintsev follows a style typical in Russian cinema with long, still shots often devoid of dialogue or anything resembling action. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening though, as the film’s opening five minutes reveal with great clarity the relationship Elena shares with Vladimir even as the two speak little to no words. Viewers get far more information from what they see and don’t see than they do from the sparse dialogue that passes between family members.

Elena is a tragic figure, of sorts, who earns sympathy even as her actions make her highly unsympathetic. She’s trapped, but it’s a trap of her own design. And while Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) does have a less than ideal relationship with his own self-centered daughter (Elena Lyadova) he’s not wrong in his criticisms of Elena’s son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin). Elena enables her lazy son to the point of exhaustion, and that attention is a telling trait and a pointed criticism.

Acting is fine across the board with Markina being the stand out thanks to a contained performance that only occasionally cracks to reveal the struggles and doubts within. The atmosphere is helped by an unsurprisingly sparse Philip Glass score that nevertheless manages to swell on occasion.

Elena appears most critical of the wealthy upper class at first glance, but the film is never that easily defined. The film takes note of the distinction and finds faults on both sides as if to say that the differences are far less interesting than the similarities. The haves and the have-nots differ in bank accounts, zip codes and thread counts, but neither can escape the weight of being human.

Elena opened June 8th in limited theatrical release.

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