After the Soviet Union came to an ignominious end in 1991, capitalism moved in. A very few became very rich, while conditions for many (not all) of the rest became worse than before. This is the spectre that makes itself felt through Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena, a small-scale drama with large-scale symbolism.
Elena is a retired nurse with no money of her own who ten years ago met a moderately wealthy man, and married him two years ago. Elena has a son from an earlier marriage, and this son now has a family of his own which he has a hard time supporting, being unable to find a job. Elena repeatedly begs her Mercedes-driving husband to help her son, and help pay for the education of her grandson – but he always refuses, taking the harsh attitude that her son is a slacker who should be able to support himself.
After the husband suffers a minor heart-attack, it occurs to Elena that if he were to die, she would be legally entitled to half of his money. So in a state of great pain and conflict, weighing the husband’s life against the well-being of her son’s family, she kills him. Being a nurse, she knows just which types of drugs he shouldn’t take together in his condition, and she explains to the hospital afterwards that the husband took those drugs himself, and she didn’t even know he had them. And despite some minor complications with the husband’s grown (but estranged) daughter, Elena gets away with it. Her son’s family quite simply moves into the late husband’s upmarket apartment.
The movie doesn’t explicitly pass judgment on Elena for what she does – it leaves that to the audience. Was it right or wrong? But I believe the director is actually entirely on Elena’s side, and so am I; everything she does is what most mothers would do for their distressed children.
At the same time the movie illustrates the new Russian class society, with struggling working class families who have to contend with insensitive nouveau riche – the message being that in the name of social justice it is legitimate to rebel against the capitalist system for the sake of the greater good. The unspoken implication is that maybe Russia needs a socialist revolution all over again.
The movie moves rather slowly, especially in the beginning, but the entire narrative is stylish and deeply emotionally memorable. Philip Glass has provided the soundtrack, in his usual and distinctive style of minimalism, which is fitting. Elena is not the kind of movie that leaves your mind anytime soon.
Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Cast: Nadezhda Markina,
Runtime: 109 min.