Monday, May 14, 2012

Andrei Zvyagintsev's ELENA: today's Russia -- full of winners and losers, all sleazebags

TrustMovies didn't see Andrei Zvyagintsev's The Banishment (from 2007), but he did see this director's award-winning The Return (2003) and found it enormously beautiful and unnecessarily mystifying. Now comes this director's new film ELENA, which is much less beautiful -- having been filmed in modern-day urban Russia, while The Return took place on a remote island full of stunning land- and sea-scapes -- and almost prosaically obvious. The movie is not, fortunately, uninteresting, buoyed as it is by some marvelous, richly-detailed performances, particularly that of Nadezhda Markina in the title role, who proves a heroine of something less than heroic proportions.

Comparisons have been made between the work of Zvyagintsev (shown at right) and Hitchcock -- which can only force one to ask if the people making these comparisons have ever seen a Hitchcock movie. Alfred had, among other things, a sense of humor, of fun -- dark and nasty as it often could be. He also used surprise and suspense in cobbling together his tales of murder and other mayhem. Our Andrei, on the other hand, offers not a moment of humor in this entire movie, and as for surprise or suspense, everything is laid out in the manner of a conservative mortician preparing the funeral of a head-of-state. Elena -- both the film and the character (shown below) -- is, first to last, almost completely predictable.

Predictability in itself is not a deal-breaker, and in fact Zvyagintsev uses it well, in that it helps push the film into a depressing slough that slowly builds into a trap for the characters (and the audience) from which there is no escape. You cannot call the film a tragedy however; no great or even near-great personage is brought down. Just a bunch of losers, upper- or lower-class, it doesn't much matter. The plot, such as it is, has to do with the second marriage for both parties who make up an older couple, their offspring, and the writing of, yep, a will.

The filmmaker's visual style is quiet, spare and slow. During the first few minutes of the movie, in fact, we simply view the home of the couple in the early morning, as the sun rises and waking life begins. So slow is this section that, knowing the film is somewhat of a mystery, one expects to have the camera, as it moves from outside to inside and then from room to room, eventually discover a dead body in the bed. No such luck.

Once we meet our protagonists/antagonists (the couple is, at once, both), we learn of their respective families: his consists of one seemingly ungrateful daughter (though once we meet her, it's a little more complicated than that; this is the single not-entirely-predictable thing in the movie, and I wish that daughter were given more time). Elena's son (center, left, below) and grandson appear to be irredeemably stupid sleaze, her daughter-in-law (at left, below) perhaps less so. Elena herself is either willfully blind to her son's character or doesn't care. And while her wealthy husband comes complete with his own sense of entitlement, he seems to be dead-on in his assessment of her side of the family.

By making the have-nots much less worthy than the haves, this skews the movie toward our "betters" -- class war! -- but it doesn't make that much difference in the end because we're not overly fond of anyone on view. If the filmmaker wants us to take this as a realistic look at modern-day Russians, well, woe are they. But didn't we know that already? (See God Bless America or the unfairly overlooked 30 Minutes or Less to see the American side of this "worthless country" proposition.)

The performances from the entire cast could hardly be improved, with Ms Markina's Elena walking off with top honors, and Yelena Lyadova coming in a close second, playing the husband's daughter, Katya.  But, at a running time of 109 minutes, Elena, in the end, with not very much to tell us (and it even repeats some of that), certainly takes its sweet time telling it*. The movie, via Zeitgeist Films, opens this Wednesday, May 16, at Film Forum in New York City for a two-week engagement, with other playdates across the country coming soon. To view them all, simply click here.

Note: The filmmaker himself, Andrey Zvyagintsev 
(I see that Film Forum spells his first name with a "y") 
will appear at the theater in person on 
Wednesday, May 16 at 8:00pm. 
If any of my readers make it to this particular screeening, 
please let me know if its director lets on that there is more 
to his movie than I was able to ascertain. 

* In the spirit of fairness, I should tell you that my companion, who saw the film with me, found it much better than did I.  "It was real," he insists, "and not the typical 'movie' kind of stuff that we usually see."  I agree with him that it was indeed "real," but within that reality, I found it too heavy-handed and repetitive (i.e.: the unnecessary, final nail in the coffin of the grandson's character).

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