Do the Russians make teenage slob films? I had this thought as I was watching Elena, the new production by Andrei Zvyagintsev, while reflecting on the preview I had attended the day before – That’s My Boy. It’s fairly obvious which movie will achieve the biggest box office, but it’s also a depressing thought.
That’s My Boy was an unusual experience, partly because I’ve never had much interest in such movies – with or wthout Adam Sandler – and it came as a shock to finally realise what the rest of the world is watching. I initially thought the gross-out humour was strictly for fourteen-year-olds, but finally decided that three-year-olds were the true target audience. Walking out of the cinema I realised with terrible certainty that civilisation was doomed.
Another day, another movie. It seems that the Russians have a long way to go before they can make heroes out of slobs. Elena has its own perspective on this issue, which is treated with a painful realism.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina), dumpy and sixtyish, is the second wife of Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), a retired businessman. They live an uneventful life in a stylish modern apartment in Moscow. The couple met when Vladimir was in hospital for appendicitis and Elena was his nurse. It’s a role she still plays, apparently by force of habit. By and large, their relations are cold and business-like.
The only sore point between them is their relationship to each other’s children. Elena considers Vladimir’s daughter, Katya (Yelena Lyadova), to be selfish and hard-hearted. Vladimir feels that Elena’s son, Sergei (Alexey Rozin), is a useless sponger. When we meet these characters we can recognise the truth in both assessments.
The story develops at a snail’s pace. Zvyagintsev allows us to get to know these people, to understand their insecurities and their contradictions. When Vladimir has a heart attack it becomes apparent that he is going to leave the bulk of his estate to his daughter. Elena is faced with the problem of what to do about this decision, but not because she covets Vladimir’s fortune for herself.
Elena’s concern is solely with her son and his family. He is out of work and sits around drinking beer all day. His teenage son, Sasha, is destined to go into the army unless they can raise the funds to send him to college. Elena knows that Vladimir’s money is the only source of salvation, but he is unwilling to listen to her appeals.
One soon warms to Vladimir’s position. Sasha spends all day playing video games, unless he has the chance to go and get into a brawl with some friends. Sergei keeps boozing and watching TV, while Tanya, his wife, is pregnant with child number three. None of this matters to Elena, whose motherly love is fierce and unconditional.
Meanwhile Vladimir effects a kind of reconciliation with Katya, who is like a modern, female version of the existential misfits that populate Russian nineteenth century novels. She is intelligent, attractive, but out-of-sorts with life. She has the resentful psychology of the neglected child, while Sergei has been spoiled by an overly attentive parent.
Elena sees that her chance to help Sergei and his family is slipping away. She has to go against her instincts as a professional carer and find the strength to take decisive action.
The power of this film lies in its unvarnished portrayal of the gaps opening up within Russian society. Vladimir represents the new rich, while Sergei is a member of the underclass. We don’t feel inclined to condemn Vladimir for his lack of compassion, because Zvyagintsev paints Sergei’s lifestyle as an ugly picture of squalor and inertia. If he doesn’t try to get work, it may be there is no work to be had. It would be difficult though, to make excuses for such an unattractive personality.
There is hardly any more dynamism to Vladimir and Elena’s daily existence. The TV is constantly burbling in the background, as if that’s the only thing rich and poor Russians have in common: an addiction to the idiot box. This makes for a dark, dispiriting story, punctuated by surprising bursts of jackhammer music, courtesy of Philip Glass.
Most soundtracks try to accentuate the developments in the plot, but the music in Elena brings some relief from the slow, deliberate pace of the story.
Zvyagintsev doesn’t ask us to empathise with any of the characters. Elena has been described as a film noir, but it has little in common with the over-heated sagas of 1940s Hollywood. Elena is no Barbara Stanwyck, and Vladimir is not Humphrey Bogart. This is not a film about desperate, illicit passions, but the despair of a society that has embraced materialism and lost its soul.
Elena, Russia, rated M, 109 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 23, 2012