After the collapse, Russia’s new capitalist wonderland?

elenaDave Kellaway reviews  Elena, (Russia, 2011) Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

I went along to see this film on the recommendation of one of my Russian students.  As the film opened with a nearly five minute still shot showing the day break on the windows of a smart Moscow apartment I began to think it might be a long two hours. But in fact you began to notice some sort of crow or raven in the tree outside the windows. A bright day is dawning with a dark foreboding. The visual subtlety continued throughout the movie which ends on a similar long take. The film is a modern day tragic ballad about Russian society today. Set in Moscow it tells the story of Elena who has married for the second time with Vladimir, an older man whom she met while nursing him at a hospital. He is a well off bureaucrat/converted businessman. Their emotional conflict drives the whole narrative.  She wants him to provide funds for her own son from a previous relationship to pay the bribe necessary for her grandchild, Sasha, to get into university despite low grades and thereby avoid conscription into the army. Her husband is old school, not about the probity of bribes, but about giving money to his stepson who he considers not be a real man because he sits around all day drinking beer and playing computer games with Sasha.

The yawning inequality in today’s Russia is strikingly expressed in the way the camera moves easily around the ultra-modern, airy, well-equipped central Moscow apartment of the old man and the way it statically portrays the cramped dark kitchen of the working class estate an awkward journey away on the outskirts of the town. The frustrations of the poor taken out on the very poor is shown yet again with hardly any dialogue in a scene towards the end where Sasha and his estate mates go into wasteland near their apartment and beat up some economic migrants living rough there (Uzbecks, Tajiks?).  Constantly in both the rich man’s apartment and the working class sink estate you have the TV blaring out the sounds and images of trash TV and the advertisements of the new capitalism. A Greek chorus of artificial well-being echoing in the both the emotional emptiness of central Moscow and the material desperation of the outskirts. The everyday acceptance of corruption in every walk of life is automatically assumed by all (and indeed confirmed if you meet any Russians today).

Elena is the heart and soul of the film. In a tremendous performance she epitomises the resilience and desperation that many Russian women must experience.  Realistically the director and writer leaves open how much love was involved in her relationship with Vladimir – it appears to be both affection and opportunity. There is a wonderful moment when after the climax of the film Elena looks at a beautiful photo of herself when younger and her expression sums up all the mixed emotions she is experiencing.  Elena Lyadova, who plays Elena has justifiably won awards for her performance.

Alongside Elena we also have Vladimir’s semi-estranged daughter who represents the spoiled children of Moscow’s nouveau riche (or re-cycled bureaucrats). She hardly sees her father except to ensure she still receives her allowance.  Her hedonistic life has a symmetrical emptiness to the couch potato poverty of Elena’s son. There is a brilliant scene where the daughter swaps barbed comments with her tough old man about their respective values. Yes, her life seems purposeless but she throws back the responsibility on her father and implicitly his generation.

A hallmark of a truly great film is the extent to which it tells the story visually. The decisive moments are often shown without dialogue and when there is dialogue it is condensed, spare and full of hidden emotional meaning.  If you add a fantastic music score using Philip Glass compositions then you really are being spoilt.  The whole was like a Ken Loach or Mike Leigh film but with added Russian depth and soul. It shows the spirit of critical Russian cinema is alive and well. The end of the Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorship has been replaced by a new society where the market and the god of money is destroying the human soul.

Unfortunately it has only been shown in British cinemas for extremely short runs or in repertory. Get it online, buy or rent it, this film fully justifies the Cannes judges who gave it the ‘Un certain regard’ award at the 2011 festival. It has won another eleven major awards and been nominated for seven others. Oh and the two hours sped by.




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