Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is middle aged and living with her wealthy husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in his luxury apartment in Moscow. The couple sleep in separate rooms and we see in detail their repetitive daily routine. But Vladimir’s health is failing him and after a heart attack he plans to make a will leaving everything to his spoilt hedonistic daughter, and providing Elena with enough to keep her going. After refusing to help out Elena’s son from a previous marriage with money for her grandson to go to college, Vladimir is not in Elena’s good books and, after the news of the will, it is up to her to change things in her favour.
The film opens with a lingering shot of a wintery branch outside a window on which a black crow appears. The music suggests something ominous is looming and combined with the symbolism of the crow we are expecting something bad to happen. But it doesn’t, not for a long time anyway, instead we get to know Elena’s mundane routine, we see her visiting her ungrateful son and his family in their rundown and cramped flat and we learn of Vladimir’s estranged daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova). This is a slow film and really takes its time to get going, instead relishing the small details of life and allowing the audience to get to know Elena and understand the dilemma she faces.
This method is fine for a while but does tend to get a bit tedious in places and at 109 minutes the film felt too long. It is an understated film but unfortunately not as suspenseful as the opening would lead you to believe. A subplot involving Elena’s grandson and a gang also feels like an unnecessary addition but does effectively highlight contemporary issues in Russia.
Elena has a really good central performance from Markina and without her saying very much at all we get to know the character extremely well through subtle nuances and actions. The other actors do a great job too and it is through Elena’s interactions with these other characters that we start to see how complex a character she is.
The understated nature of the film leaves it feeling rather underwhelming and when watching at a film festival it easily gets lost amongst the more distinctive films. However, that is not to say that Elena is a bad film, there are some fascinating scenes and Elena as a character is deeply intriguing. The film is an excellent study of the human survival instinct rooted in us all, and examines just how far people will go to look after their loved ones. Whether our central protagonist makes the right decision is questionable and if she believes she does the right thing is also left ambiguous and this is where the interest lies, we never quite know what she is thinking and feeling and therefore we never truly know who Elena is.
Winner of Un Certain Regard – Special Jury Prize at Cannes last year, there is definitely something beguiling about this film but the indication in some reviews that it is a modern noir thriller is rather misleading. If you expect something subtle and measured then you won’t be disappointed. A good but not a great film.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Andrey Zvyagintsev , Oleg Negin (screenplay)
Stars: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov and Aleksey Rozin
Runtime: 109 mins