Elena (Nadejda Markina) is a middle-aged housewife in modern day Russia, who has married up. Her husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) is much richer than her and her family, including her son Sergei (Alexei Rozine) from a previous relationship and his family, whom Vladimir refuses to support financially. Elena and Vladimir barely communicate with controversial topics either avoided or addressed only in notes left next to his separate bed. When Sergei asks Elena to help fund his son Sasha’s (Igor Ogourstsov) university fees and hence avoid being drafted into the army, Elena has to get the money somehow and Vladimir won’t help.
Elena opens with a near two-minute shot, which recurs at the end of the film, showing the side of Elena and Vladimir’s flat as the sun rises in real time. It acts, much like the opening shot of Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, somewhat comically, as the director’s shorthand for communicating to the audience that they had better get into a contemplative mood fairly soon, because the film won’t have any of the traditional Hollywood pleasures. Though the shot does have its aesthetic merits, it is quietly mesmerizing and quite beautiful in its way, it is a little too much of a director’s indulgence and a bit of an art house cliché, not unlike the shot that lingers on a nurse making a hospital bed after the patient has left. Elena establishes itself from the very beginning as an art house film, almost self-consciously.
However, the plot resembles more the pulp fiction of James M. Cain (note that Elena is a retired nurse), no surprise since Cain has influenced many writers and filmmakers all over the world, from Luchino Visconti to Albert Camus. The plot unravels slowly and methodically, with Zvyagintsev more interested in the moral and socio-political implications of Elena’s, and others’, acts. Though that is not to say that the film is cold and clinical, as Nadejda Markina proves more than capable of giving the drama an emotional power despite the distancing devices. Elena becomes, as a result, a beautifully visual film with an emotional heart and a contemplative and critical eye. What lets it down is really what Andrei Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin seem to want to say with it.
The film is dark at its core, suggesting that all humans are essentially self-serving and arrogant. Vladimir and his daughter Katerina (Elena Liadova) are emotional cripples and have nothing but contempt for the world and for the people in it. Sergei and Sasha are useless and stupid and do little of value. Sasha, it turns out is openly violent to those even lower down the social order than himself, in a visceral scene in which he and his mates battle a group of homeless men. And Elena, though seemingly so modest and charitable, ends up being the most morally compromised and criminal character. Zvyagintsev paints all of the characters critically but offers no real alternative or credo of his own. Worse still, he seems to openly side with Vladimir and Katerina, presenting them as emotionally cold and cynical, yet ultimately wise and articulate. In fact in one scene between Vladimir and Katerina, they come to an understanding and a rapprochement, one of the film’s few warm scenes. Their worldviews are grim and nihilistic but they find comfort in their agreement. On the other hand, Elena’s family are presented as stupid, practically monosyllabic or thuggish. When, by the end of the film, Vladimir and Katerina have been removed from the picture and Elena has ascended to prominence, bringing along Sergei and Sasha, it is hard not to feel that Zvyagintsev sees them as uncultured louts, represented through their constant watching of daytime television and drinking. There is more than an air of snobbery in this representation and the ending is an uncomfortable critique of class upward-mobility. It is difficult to tell how much of this to take seriously, but if the film had been made by, or at least championed by, a Conservative MP it would be critically mauled. One scene played for laughs, in which Sergei and his wife Tatiana (Evgenia Konushkina) announce that they are pregnant with yet another baby, seems to be illustrating the same ridiculous arguments made by John Ward in 2008.
Who says that the art house isn’t the place for right-wing films? Nevertheless, Elena is that strangest of films, that is modernist in form and full of great performances and made with an eye for composition and beauty and with an obvious artistic intent and yet manages to be if not stupid then poorly thought out. The argument it makes at the level of class is at the very least insensitive, but on a social level, the film is merely celebrating nihilism like it was fashionable. Zvyagintsev, through his many references to Andrei Tartovsky, is clearly interested in the idea of the director-philosopher, but he seems to celebrate nothing other than snobbery. Intellectual superiority seems to be his only value; one that he seems to believe is the preserve of the rich.