'Elena': film gem from Russia
A family drama in contemporary Moscow, Elena is Chekhov on steroids, an intriguingly unpredictable film. When the credits roll at the end, the story continues to run in the mind as you create various scenarios for the characters' future.
Elena opens slowly, almost glacially, the camera panning around a luxurious apartment in Moscow, birch trees outside, state-of-the-art electronics inside. There is silence, accompanied by only a few sinister crows' caws. Philip Glass' throbbing ostinato doesn't kick in until later - not an imitation, but the score by the Minimalist Who Never Grew Up himself.
The director is Novosibirsk-born Andrei Zvyagintsev, whose not-to-be-missed calling card is The Return - with Vladimir Garin, Ivan Dobronravov and Konstantin Lavronenko - which won him a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2003.
Elena is opening today at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck in Berkeley. It's also going to Camera 3 in San Jose later this month.
The story - simple, gripping, suspenseful - is about a late-in-life second marriage, of a couple from different backgrounds, and with adult children from previous marriages. Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) is a wealthy, self-absorbed man; Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a nurse, coming from relative poverty, warm, supportive.
His daughter (Elena Lydova) is a drug addict, long estranged from her father. Her son (Aleksey Rozin) is an indolent, unemployed man with a family of his own, including a delinquent teenager son - all depending on Elena's support.
The description may make the characters sound superficial and uninteresting, but in Zvyagintsev's hands - and with a brilliant cast - this is a captivating story, especially as the Vladimir takes ill, and a battle begins over prospects of the inheritance.
Smirnov has a distinguished career as actor and director in Soviet and then Russian cinema (his 1974 Autumn is outstanding, and he is responsible for engaging Alfred Schnittke for writing the music for his films).
With the help of Oleg Negin's deft screenplay, Smirnov creates a living character where the setup might have resulted in a cardboard figure. Clearly, Vladimir uses and controls Elena, but there is more to the relationship than domination and exploitation, although there are elements of both.
Markina's performance in the title role is rich and shaded, deceptively simple, well deserving of the Un Certain Regard special jury prize she received for it at Cannes last year. Other cast members all make their mark, however brief their appearance may be. I hope Lydova may be seen in other roles because the brevity of her presence as the dissolute daughter in Elena only whets the appetite.
Similarly to the ambiguous, provocative ending of A Separation (the standard by which contemporary family dramas are judged), Elena closes without closure, prompting as many sequels onspooling in the mind as there are audience members.