Legendary Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev creates a great film noir.
With a screenplay by Oleg Negin and score by Phillip Glass “Elena” is a masterpiece of the understated film noir. Crows call out warning cries off-screen and barely perceptible low frequency rumbles travel through the floor as Elena slips further and further into a murderous abyss.
The low frequency rumbles are either the gathering clouds of a horrific thunderstorm being contemplated by Zeus himself or the earthquake of Elena’s moral underpinnings tearing and wrenching at their foundations. The deed is done, the crows cry, her train hits and kills a man and his horse.
The lights in the block go out, the grandchild naps fitfully on the bed of his dead grandfather. The estranged daughter smiles at the success of her stepmother, reuniting with her at last in the ultimate and final chapter of a wealthy and diseased family spawned from the demise of the USSR.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is the wife of successful, retired industrialist Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Vladimir is on his last legs, having drained his reserves to the end in the pursuit of the almighty ruble. He married Elena when she was his nurse, ten years earlier and the sheen is now completely off their once fiery affair. Neither one can account for the loss of vibrancy in their lives.
The film opens with scenes from their dark marriage. The couple moves with the deliberate, numbing movements of the walking dead. The emotion is as powerful as the opening scenes of Béla Tarr’s classic “The Turin Horse (A Torinói ló–2012). The dread seeps out of the screen while barely a word is said. There is no need for words, anymore, in this marriage.
Everything is done by rote and the future is preordained. Vladimir counts his life complete except for the affection of his daughter Katerina (Yelena Lyadova). He lost Katerina in his pursuit of wealth in the free-for-all surrounding perestroika and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Elena still has affection for Vladimir, however, her growing concerns for the fate of her grandson are crowding out her ability to care for her marginally available husband. Absolute wealth corrupts absolutely and Elena is headed towards corruption as she struggles to find a way into college and out of the military for her grandson.
Her loafer son Sergey is incapable of doing anything except begging her for money and having more children. As his oldest nears draft age, it will be off to Ossetia for him, if he falls to make it into college. The magic ingredient is money. Vladimir has it, however, he will not give it to the shiftless Sergey. Katerina has love, however she will not give it to the cold-hearted Vladimir.
American style TV talk shows drone on in the background as Glass’ low key Symphony No. 3 raises to a fever pitch of dread and fearful anticipation. The dreadfully trivial daytime TV topics invade the sanctity of the marriage like a home-wrecking lover. The household is slowly being reduced to an object of abuse by the material world. Unlike conventional noir, there will be no just deserts at the end of this tale.
It will be up to the viewer to imagine what fate waits in store for the once naïve and loving Elena. She has passed the point of no return and her soul is clearly lost. Only the most horrible fate can await her, although we have no way of knowing what is will be.
As the infant grandson twists and turns on his deceased grandfather’s bed the tense sound track rises in intensity and we can only wonder what the fate of the child will be. Sergey munches peanuts and drinks beer while Elena prepares to spend the rest of her life with her secret. There is no turning back.
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Directed by: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Written by: Oleg Negin
Starring: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov and Aleksey Rozin
Release Date: May 16
MPAA: Not Rated
Running Time: 109 Minutes
Language: Russian w/English subtitles