We’re soon approaching the end of 2012. What a fabulous year for films, ey? Whilst I’m holding off completing my ‘Top Movies of 2012’ until Christmas time, I’m rapidly trying to cram in all of those movies I’ve been desperate to see this year but, for some silly reason or another, have failed to get around to. Elena is such a film. The third feature from Russian modern master Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, The Banishment), it’s a frosty, portentous, and oddly beautiful depiction of conflict between contemporary Moscow’s bourgeoisie and the humble underclass.
Nadezhda Markina plays the title character Elena, a sixty-something, former state nurse turned docile housewife to the wealthy Russian aristocrat Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). They met late in life when Elena was once caring for Vladimir in a hospital bed, and started up an unlikely kinship. Whether it was a bond formed out of compromise or compassion is unsure, but now, ten years on, their stale, loveless marriage is nothing more than a formality.
Elena spends her days travelling by tram, train and bus to to visit her unemployed son from a previous marriage, Sergei (Andrei Smirnov). Living in the Projects and overlooking a disused power plant from the old communist days, he depends on his mother to support his family, and gets supplements from her pension money, and sly payments from Vladimir’s estate.
Vladimir’s relationship with his daughter Katya is initially far more hostile, but just as parasitic. Begrudgingly labelling her as a hedonist, the concerned father has cut off any contact with Katya, happy to transfer monthly payments into her bank account, but not willing to start up a paternal bond. After a heart attack puts Vladimir in hospital, Elena hatches a despicable plan to give her grandson enough money to put him through university; a prevention from the harsh life in the Russian underclass.
With deliberately slow pacing, long takes and a muted, quasi-apocalyptic colour palette, when it featured at Cannes this year, comparisons with prodigious Russian auteur were aplenty. But aside from these niggling aspects, Zvyagintsev is working within his own social-realism vein; taking the conventions of melodrama and reconfiguring them into an abstemious framework. He manages to present a quintessentially Russian cultural divide, but make it universally engaging and cinematic through some incredible performers across the board. Markina is astonishing in the lead. A taciturn character, she uses expression and lost glances to perfectly encapsulate the neglected wife-turned-carer, who is on the brink of depression and mania.
The finest moment of the entire movie doesn’t even include our leading lady. Sitting in a private hospital bed, Vladimir’s first and only encounter with daughter Katya is unnerving yet deeply poignant. Making up for lost time, they share awkward, short exchanges at first, before the emotions soon come flooding to the surface and the pair are sharing smiles and tears of joy, unbeknownst to them, for the last time.
The glacial cinematography from Mikhail Krichman, along with a pitch-perfect score from New York’s Philip Glass, make Elena a film of remarkable, modest beauty. Give it a few years to mature, and we’ll soon be heralding it as a modern masterpiece of some new European cinema movement. What movement? That’s up for talented director Andrey Zvyagintsev to decide.