Russian auteur Andrewi Zvyagintsev (THE BANISHMENT, THE RETURN) has crafted a tense, deliciously minutely observed character drama in ELENA. It begins slowly with the quiet observation of a quietly luxurious but emotionally empty life. A sixty-ish neat woman, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is more like a live-in maid to her rich husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), although later we will see that there is real intimacy and sympathy between them. Still, for all that, Vladimir holds Elena at a distance, she isn't family in thee same way as his dissipated and angry daughter Katya - again a rounded character - she hates her father but they also share real sympathy. And if Elena comes second to Katya - as is made clear in the will he tells Elena he is about to sign - Vladimir has even less time for Elena's wastrel son and grandson, who live in a crummy Soviet era apartment, sponging off Elena for cash. With a few brief but effective scenes, we learn that Elena is a good woman, who cares deeply for her family, and completely believe in her desperate actions as the film reaches it's final third.
ELENA is thus a psychological study of compelling credibility but also a fascinating look at the contrast between those who have made it in the new Russia and those still living in comparative poverty in the old Soviet structures. The implied social critique is that in a society of graft, success comes to those who play the game. Vladimir played it in his way and now Elena, her possibilities circumscribed by her age, gender and situation, must take her chances too. The power of the film comes from the superb central performances in combination with Mikhail Krichman's camerawork and Zvyagintsev's framing of the luxurious apartment and the claustrophobic Soviet block. This is also one of the rare occasions where I really responded to a Philip Glass, and didn't find it overwhelming.
ELENA played Cannes where Andrew Zvyagintsev won the Un Certain Regard Jury Prize. It also played Moscow, Toronto and London 2011. It was released in Russia last month and opens in France on March 7th 2012.