If "Elena" sounds like a soap opera, you’re wrong
Starting with an extremely long take of the outside of a luxury apartment, filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev almost challenges the audience to pay attention to every detail in the frame of his film Elena. As the shot pushes on, it’s as if the filmmaker is telling the audience not to go inside, not to get involved with the rich drama that is happening, the shot is the point of no return for the audience. This invokes so many ideas about voyeurism and the nature of human interactions; smartly Andrei Zvyagintsev builds upon these ideas once we get inside.
Elena is the story of an elderly pair dealing with their separate families. At first glance, it feels like Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is the caretaker for the very wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), but the reality is this couple is married. They sleep in separate bedrooms, live on different timetables and so little to no affection for each other. It seems more like a marriage of companionship or, as the audience finds out, a marriage of convenience. Elena’s grown-up (I use that term very loosely) son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) is having a hard time trying to find a job and continuously asks his mother for money to support his family. Sergey’s family is very poor. His son, Sasha, hasn’t fallen too far from the tree (both are helpless sad sacks). Elena asksVladimir for money to help her family and when he refuses she brings up the relationship he has with his estranged daughter, Katerina (Yelena Lyadova). Their relationship is somewhat complicated and the audience has the feeling it have something to do with his marriage to Elena a few years prior.
If Elena sounds like a soap opera, you’re wrong. It’s melodramatic by nature, which is vastly different from being soap operatic. The emotions and situations are exaggerated but serve a more interesting theme about socialism, privilege and family, all wrapped up in a fascinating morality. It’s not so much as grey as it is ambiguously black and white. After we get a clear sense of what the family situations are, the film takes a shift and from one instance the whole world is turned on its head. We now look at these two families from a completely point of view with the same ambiguous morality.
Elena is a slow film but is always engaging and never boring. As the film unfolds, we get so many new angles of how to look at these characters and the story overall. There is so much here to endlessly enjoy. It will challenge your beliefs and your morality as you leave the theater after watching it. The duality of how these two families live is presented in a slow and natural way but invokes so many ideas of wealth and poverty and how they interact together. It’s not very often films are presented as fables or parables and in a manner that is not heavy-handed or trite. It’s effective as a slice of life or as a cautionary tale about the ills of privilege.
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