Now I head into 2011’s critically acclaimed Elena. Expectations are not super duper high, I imagine I will give it three stars, but I also imagine I will enjoy it! Wait a moment – - please wait outside the theater. Yes, it is technically showtime, but we’re having one of our characteristic technical problems and will need a moment to clear things up. Can we offer you nothing while you wait?
At 30 years old (and at 6pm on a Tuesday) I may be the youngest person at this sold-out screening inside the second theater of Fox Bay’s Cinema Grill, where apparently waiters will be buzzing around during the screening and serving the denizens of the bars we’re all sitting at. A new experience, at the least. Whitefish Bay is charming enough, if a bit… nice.
Well then. Who could’ve suspected that Elena would begin with the technique that Dead Weight dully drove into the ground?: a rack focus from a close-up of a branch to the tree behind it. The shot is outside the contemporary upper-middle-class home (or compound) of Vladimir and his wife Elena, and we solemnly navigate a few vacuum-like corridors before we follow the daily routine of Elena. As one who really, truly does adore Russia, this realist portrait of modern Russian life was heartily welcome. For instance, when Elena is preparing breakfast in the morning she uses what I believe was a clear, Brita-like water pitcher that was aboil, leading me to think that over there they have handheld kettles that keep water perpetually boiling (those Russians). Cool! Elena speaks delicately with her husband over breakfast about her deadbeat son (from a previous marriage), Sergei, asking Vladimir for the money necessary to keep his family going, specifically Sergei’s up-and-coming deadbeat son Sasha, who we witness much later being quite the young Droog. Vladimir, while a caring husband, cannot stomach helping a man as lazy as Sergei, even if Sergei is her lover’s son. Elena’s frustration is compounded by the fact that Vladimir continually supports his own daughter, Katya, a melancholy, misanthropic, intellectual hedonist played by Elena Lyadova. I would love to see more of this actress, who did very fine work, and it doesn’t hurt that she’s a classic Russian beauty. After Vladimir has a heart attack in a gym pool, the plot’s main catalyst, Katya is morally forced to visit him in the hospital and a very sweet scene endures in which she nihilistically denies him all affection before they somehow smile, laugh, kiss.
This is a film I was quite happy to go into nearly blind. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s direction is formal, deft, voyeuristic. The content of Elena involves a bit of moral ambiguity (the reasons for which I will not elaborate) and Zvyagintsev’s direction takes a smart distance from it. Most of the film unfolds without inflection, and in the last third I do imagine there are a few disparate moral lanes each audience member will be taking. Elena won the ‘Un Certain Regard – Grand Jury Prize’ at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and with the exception of the impenetrably perfect Sans Soleil, is the best film I’ve yet seen at this year’s festival.
written by David Ashley