Like the younger son in The Return (2003), who freezes in fear at the top of a tower rather than jumping off a tower into a lake to join his friends, and the husband in The Banishment (2007), torn between whether or not to shoot his best friend who he believes impregnated his late wife, the title character in Zvyagintsev’s third feature is caught between a rock and a hard place. A late addition to Un Certain Regard, for which it is the closing night film, one can only wonder, why is this extraordinary film not in the main competition?
This compelling drama about a family torn askew is chilling, its locations and premises evocative of the new Russia, especially when money is involved. There is nothing light about the various family members and their relationships with one another, yet they and their often ridiculous value systems pull you into their lives and dilemmas.
Grounded by Markina’s magnificent performance as the middle-aged title character who selects her biological family over her wealthy second husband when the financial stakes are high, brilliantly shot by Zvyagintsev regular Krichman, and its chill heightened by hyper, excited bursts from Glass’s score, the film will resonate with Russian audiences who are willing to subject themselves to artistic portraits of their society in crisis and to arthouse crowds in metropolitan centers worldwide.
Those put off by the self-conscious mythological references and oversymmetrical design of Venice Golden Lion winner The Return will respond to this much earthier examination of relatives torn asunder in Russia’s post-communist consumer society.
Elena is also caught in a double bind. A nurse from the proletariat whose late-in-life second marriage is to a nouveau riche older man whom she cared for 10 years before when he was in the hospital with peritonitis, she is a sweet, simple, overweight woman who looks more like a maid than a spouse in the expensive, ultra-modern home of husband Vladimir (an excellent Smirnov).
After Vladimir is again hospitalized, this time with a heart attack, he tells his docile, obedient spouse that he is going to write a will the following day and leave most of his fortune to his spoiled, estranged daughter, Katya (Lyadova), from his first marriage, and only a monthly annuity to her. The shock forces Elena to make something akin to a Sophie’s Choice decision: Should she side with her ne’er-do-well, beer-guzzling son, Sergey (Rozin), who needs the money to pay bribes to get his undeserving son, Sasha (Ogurtsov), into college so that the boy can avoid the famously harsh military service, or with her devoted husband, honouring his final wish by doing nothing?
In a split-second, sweet Elena carves out a plan to “accidentally” kill Vladimir with medication. From the moment she opts for her first family, she morphs from a nearly featureless embodiment of conventional morality and behaviour (her favourite pastime is watching food shows on tv) into the nervous perpetrator of the most unethical of crimes. Markina delivers a memorable performance, making the transformation both chilling and credible.
The film is laden with irony. Although Elena had nursed Vladimir back to health at the time they met, she ends up taking his life (she peppers his food with Viagra). The grandson she saves from the evident horrors of life in the Russian military by murdering a clean-living old man is not merely a poor student but an ultraviolent gang member with seemingly no redeeming value. Zvyagintsev ends the film by lingering on an overhead shot of Sergey’s other son, a baby, alone on top of a bed. There is no doubt that the director strongly believes that any sense of morality in the Russia of the future is in seriously jeopardy.