Dutiful wife faces desperate situation in tense ‘Elena’

  • Thu Jul 12th, 2012 4:17pm
  • Life

By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic

It’s not a huge surprise to learn that the Russian film “Elena” was originally planned as a Hollywood project. This film has the outline of a devious crime drama, a film noir for the modern era.

Director Andrei Zvyagintsev scored an international success with his gripping 2003 film “The Return,” which is the kind of thing that can get you U.S. financing. But ultimately he decided “Elena” would be made in his native country — because if the outline is Hollywood, the execution feels very Russian.

The movie’s first section is a very, very slow build; we can sense that something sinister is going to happen, but we’re not sure what it might be. The title character is the wife of a well-to-do older man, but we could be forgiven for mistaking Elena for his live-in servant; she’s nursemaid and sexual partner in an arrangement that doesn’t appear particularly loving.

Elena has an adult son, a no-goodnik living with his own family in a rundown part of the city. The complicated family dynamics that bring together these two worlds will find their culmination in a decisive piece of action on Elena’s part, which shouldn’t be detailed here.

Zvyagintsev is definitely interested in family bonds, which can be as constricting in this world as they are reassuring. But he makes it clear that money is the string that ties all these people together, that keeps them from achieving their goals and promises rewards they haven’t earned.

The style is supremely controlled, except for one violent section that involves Elena’s grandson and that feels like a kind of rebellion against the messed-up system he’s been born into. The director’s approach is otherwise calm and elegant, which makes its turn toward the dark side all that more unnerving.

It has a musical score by Philip Glass, but only sparingly; Glass’s trademark repetitive sounds emerge only at peculiar moments. It’s a mysterious choice, but it works.

The movie also has a strong human presence in Nadezhda Markina, the actress who plays Elena. Weary and past her prime, whatever that might have been, Elena is resigned to her place, until she reaches her “no way out” moment. But even the solution has its share of thorns, as the final shot of this excellent movie reminds us so eloquently.

“Elena” ½

A sinister film noir scenario unfolds in this Russian film about a wife trapped in a thankless marriage, whose family problems force her into a situation with only one apparent way out. An excellent film from the director of “The Returns,” Andrei Zvyagintsev. In Russian, with English subtitles.

Rated: Not rated; probably R for violence, subject matter.

Showing: Uptown.