There’s a strange tendency in foreign arthouse fare to try to take the most stock elements of genre storytelling and try to make them ‘legitimate’, usually through an overabundance of melodrama and heaps and heaps of more muted acting. As if by taking something and pumping it full of portentous, ponderous emotions that it will increase its relative worth. It’s not completely unrelated to the process of injecting water into cheap chicken to make it weigh more, and has about the same result: an inscrutably thin piece of meat masquerading as a full dinner. Such is the case with Elena.
A Russian language film from director Andrei Zvyagintsev, Elena is the story of its eponymous lead character, played by Nadezhda Markina. Elena is a housewife of sorts, part maid and part caretaker to her older husband, a wealthy man that she met some ten years prior when she attended to him in the hospital. They fell into something resembling love, a remote sort of companionship where they sleep in separate rooms and eat quiet breakfasts at the same table, separated seemingly by an insurmountable gulf of experience and opinion.
When they do talk, it always seems vaguely antagonistic. Elena is sending all of her money to a layabout son and his children, who eagerly sap their mother dry at every turn and keep asking for more. Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), her husband, is openly contemptuous of their practical welfare status, nobody working and continually having kids they can’t hope to support, playing on Elena’s desire to be a good grandmother and provide for them. Elena is prickly about the subject, especially since Vladimir uses his seemingly unlimited funds to support his own wayward, though more cosmopolitan, daughter Katja.
I don’t think it’s a spoiler (it’s in the trailer, and basically the big selling point the movie has) that when Vladimir has a heart attack, he’s scared into drawing up a will that would leave most of his wealth to his daughter, giving Elena enough to live on but not enough to support her increasingly demanding family. Stuck between her obligations as matriarch and her supposed love and loyalty to this man she’s lived with, Elena takes the obvious choice and decides to accidentally slip him a few too many pills, making sure that he never gets around to making sure she never gets at the bulk of his money.
It’s a pretty stock crime drama trope, and much of the materials surrounding this movie when it premiered and won a Special Jury Prize at Cannes and similar film festivals revolved around its comparisons to film noir. The problem isn’t that that isn’t true, but that it makes such heavy work of such a simple concept. The movie plays out in long quiet takes, relying mostly on Elena’s careworn features and the quiet martyrdom she subjects herself to in both sides of her daily life. When Katja shows up, sure of herself and apathetic towards the needs of others, it almost feels like blasphemy. A refreshing blasphemy, to be sure, but the diametric opposites of the two women only butt heads a time or two before careening back into their isolated worlds, where minutes drag on like hours. It takes a full hour before Elena dreams up this scheme, and by the time things start happening all energy has been sucked out of the room. The line between taut emotion and thudding boredom is a fine one sometimes, but I feel Elena steps over that line one too many times.
That’s not to say it’s without its charms. It’s an assuredly shot film, to be true, and it has an impressively playful soundtrack that toys with the lurid crime trappings far more than the movie does, incorporating a seemingly constant background chatter of TV reality shows and news programs interviewing increasingly entitled young people seemingly egging on the actions being taken like some sort of technological chorus. And much is made visually of the economic disparity of modern Russia, the wealth and comforts of the upper class and the basic wasteland of everyone else. There’s a real beauty to her clean, modern house, contrasted with the apocalyptic slums where her family live—cramped rooms and a power plant just across the street, kids perched like vultures on graffiti covered stoops.
But in totality it feels like a half hour of plot stretched over too large a frame, interesting in the broad strokes but agonizing in its pacing. By the time it gets to things that actually could be interesting, the movie’s nearly over, and tries to bring itself to an ambiguous moral statement that it never spent enough time considering. It’s a movie that asks the audience to do the heavy lifting in terms of investing in these characters. It would be fine if it earned that kind of narrative trust, but instead manages to feel like the worst kind of indulgence, the type of movie that gives foreign cinema in general and arthouse fare specifically a stigma it doesn’t usually deserve. I don’t hate Elena, but it’s the definition of a stiff slog, a movie that is often more trouble than it’s worth.
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