Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Starring: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov and Aleksey Rozin
Building tension is an art form in itself. Hitchcock knew that, and apparently so does Andrei Zvyagintsev. It is also quite apparent that he is a student of Hitchcock with his newest slow-burner, Elena; which is a follow-up from the The Return, another film with the same moral ambiguity. Elena would be classified as a modern film noir, if we’re looking to categorize cinema. Even the opening shot carries some unnervingly ominous symbolism, with a raven landing on an empty, autumnal tree branch and cawing loudly, making the only noise that can be heard. We gaze through the skeletal branches, through the window, and from there on, it’s all out of focus. This entire shot lasts a good five minutes (or a little under), yet it’s wrought with tension and doom. Somehow Zvyagintsev has us looking into virtually nothing and finding something to make us feel uneasy. This is most of Elena, until a dramatic turn in the story that most of us saw coming, but it feels just as unexpected. Elena is masterful filmmaking of the highest calibre; it epitomizes what a film noir can be.
Elena is a moderately happy housewife who married a wealthy, though cold, businessman. It’s clear she didn’t do this out of monetary gain, since she genuinely loves him. But when confronted with her son’s financial difficulties, whose own son’s future is at stake, she decides to take drastic measures when Vladimir has a heart attack and rejects her request to pay her grandson’s tuition. In Vladimir’s mind, a father must do for his son. There’s nothing wrong with this belief, since it’s not greed that drives it, but a strong sense of morality and ethics of what should constitute a father figure. Her endless love for her family is what drives her. Katya,Vladimir’s daughter, is another major component. There’s a lot more to Katya than what Elena believes. In that respect, it becomes all the more tragic.
The film manages to separate itself from the conventional noir by way of the thin plot. A vast majority of the film noir genre carry a convoluted plot–this is done on purpose, of course–but in the case of Elena, it’s straight forward. And all the better for it. Filled with sparse landscapes, desolate fields with low-income apartment buildings tattooed with graffiti, surrounded by chemical plants sending smoke into the air, all contrasted with the orange glow of a setting sun. There’s an unconventional beauty in the landscaping of the film, where we’re given typically ugly settings made beautiful, just like the dark, shadowed black and white grain of your classic film noir. It all matches up perfectly with the minimalist story. The Hitchcockian orchestral score highlights this contradiction with a soaring, tension-laden soundtrack. Between the soundtrack and the stark landscapes, it all highlights the inner conflict faced by our protagonist.
Elena is played by Nadezhda Markina to terrific, understated perfection. She hits all of the right notes. While there is very little going on on the surface, there is an electric undercurrent of feeling surging through her. Faced with decisions many would deem impossible and cruel, her reactions seem wholly human. In one scene that stood out in particular, Elena meets up with Katya, who is seemingly distant from her father. Katya is played by Elena Lyadova to bitter satisfaction, with an air of resentment towards Elena that is unparalleled and slightly inexplicable. She has life all figured out, or in her own way, as she believes adamantly that children are a waste of time, and that her father is a greedy womanizer. In this scene Elena is faced with the nigh impossible task of persuading Katya to visit her father in the hospital. Her rejection to Elena’s innocent request is shocking, but when Katya does agree to it in the end, her interaction with Vladimir is strangely touching. Zvyagintsev not only proves his skill with tone, but his prowess with guiding conversations effortlessly to unsettling places. His actors speak, but their true personalities are shown and often betray their words.
The consequences of a character’s actions, to Zvyagintsev, are not always shown. In fact, he seems particularly bent on showing a lack of consequence. We are left with an uncomfortable feeling with no knowledge of where our protagonist and the others will be going. This same uncomfortable feeling is accompanied by the sense of disillusionment with our characters who we thought we knew, only to reveal themselves as something deeper, more complex and independent. Elena, whose morality is shown to be the most ambiguous, is questionable–but her motivation for doing what she did is clear, yet it seems all the more unsettling for it. Like Vladimir, this is a cold world that Zvyagintsev has constructed; where the cool, beautiful autumnal landscape is differentiated by the rugged, urban power plants. It all seems perfectly contradictory.
Written by: Justin Webb