Andrei Zvyagintsev’s film Elena is going to be in theaters for the next few weeks, at Film Forum in New York till at least the 29th. Anyone who remembers The Return (2003) is excited to check it out – and anyone who’s worked with me knows I talk about The Return a lot.
Critics are seeing Elena as a fable about the money-obsessed Hobbesianism of contemporary Russia, and it certainly works as that. I caught opening night, however, when Zvyagintsev was there in person, and he said it wasn’t originally set in Russia! He had a deal to make a film in English, and he and writer Oleg Negin wrote it to be shot in the UK. The deal fell apart, and they reset the story in Moscow, changing practically nothing.
The story is about a retired nurse whose second marriage to an older, wealthy man has become stressed by her financial needs. Her son from her first marriage lives in a Soviet-era housing project near a nuclear plant, and can’t seem to stop drinking or having babies. Her husband never hesitates to indulge his own daughter, who acts like a Russian you’d meet at a shoe store in Soho, but is fed up with his step-son and refuses to give him any more money. When the husband suffers a heart attack, and vows to make his wishes explicit in a will, Elena makes a rash decision on her son’s family’s behalf.
It’s a story in which bad deeds can go unpunished, and in which the viewer is paid enough respect to see the villain given a fair hearing. Elena’s husband sensitively apologizes for the times when he is too harsh about it, but he appears to have his step-son figured out. Elena, for her part, is a nurturing mama turned criminal who shows equivocation before acting, and later regret for what she has done.
You never doubt when you watch one of Zvyagintsev’s films that you are in the hands of a story-teller who knows exactly why he is taking as long as he is at showing any one narrative step. Kitchen appliances, morning shaving routines, and the sliding doors in Elena’s ultra-mod Moscow apartment get shown in all-consuming detail, with lots of attention to audio, and each set up has at least a modest payoff later on. Zvyagintsev has been called the inheritor of the Tarkovsky mantle, but his films are tighter and therefore easier to watch than Tarkovsky’s. Compared to his Turkish contemporary Nuri Bilge Ceylan (Climates, Distant) who uses similar pacing to create similar philosophical atmospheres, he is downright snappy…
…to a point! The dullest part of this film is Philip Glass’ soundtrack. (In his defense, he didn’t compose specifically for it; the film used his Third Symphony.) You get the sense that Zvyagintsev or his producers feared that we’d get bored by the naturalism throughout Elena, particularly in the long sequences when characters travel from one location to another, and compromised by covering them with some Philip Glass to make it seem a little more like every other international film. Maybe I’d have been bored to tears had I seen it without the soundtrack, so I can’t say for sure, but this seems unnecessary. That spatial distance between luxury condos in central Moscow and the rust belt on the perimeter, is after all what’s at stake in the film. I was on the edge of my seat while an automatic espresso machine spat out a double shot, I wasn’t about to object to an extra minute of the heroine’s preparation while riding the train.
The Return is still probably the film to see to get to know Zvyagintsev, but this one is sticking with me too.