“We’re all bad seeds,” says a character in Elena, a Russian film so focused on moral corruption it feels like a perfectly symmetrical sculpture of drama. The film by Andrei Zvyagintsev unfolds with a graceful efficiency that I have not experienced since the Dardenne Brothers’ Kid With a Bike (‘The Kid With a Bike’ harnesses potency of simple filmmaking). But where that film ended on a poetic, if ambiguous note, Elena hums along on a stark, chilling drone that never lets the viewer go.
The film’s tone steers far from the high-pitched. Zvyagintsev guides the drama with a firm, steady hand. It opens slow, as dawn arrives outside an upscale apartment. The shrieks of crows on the bare branches outside the ultra-modern apartment turn to the twitter of little birds. Inside, a couple wakes in separate beds. Middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gets up just ahead of her alarm, and she wanders to another room to tap her slightly older-looking husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). Their relationship seems ambiguous at first, even after discussion of family and money. Instead,little details of it (they have been married two years, he met her when she worked as a nurse almost 10 years earlier) come out in well-placed tidbits here and there, cropping up to do the best service to the drama, calling for an attentive but not over-alert audience.
The film seems to just wash over the viewer with simple but illustrative situations. The viewer will soon meet Elena’s son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family, after Elena takes a lengthy trek via streetcar then train followed by a long walk. All the while Philip Glass’ broody “Symphony No. 3, Movement III” drones along. It is the only extra-diegetic music Zvyagintsev uses, and it will only appear three times in the film. Like the best of efficient filmmakers, Zvyagintsev knows how to use mood music for maximal effect, cuing audience awareness.
He also knows how to use action, dialogue and set pieces to their fullest narrative potential, including subtext. The extreme difference between Sergey’s rundown, tiny apartment, located near a nuclear power plant, which also houses his wife, teenage son and baby boy feels cramped. It seems to ooze cheap possessions from its cracking façade. The graffiti covered hallways on the ground floor, along with the teenage punk loiterers stooped outside the building sharing a bottle of drink bring to mind A Clockwork Orange.
Elena is a stark experience to watch unfold, and it is so well made, it almost feels like a spoiler to explain the plot beyond the director’s expert handling of all the devices he can employee of cinema. He earns every scene while avoiding quick, flashy cuts, hysterical acting and over-stylized camera use. The film only has one jarring scene of shaky handheld camera, and when it appears it carries with it an ominous sense of dread.
Zvyagintsev employs steady-handed direction that even makes the banal dreck of game shows and lifestyle reports coming out of the TV in some scene feel relevant to his statement. Do not expect much of a cathartic release come the film’s end. In fact, the path the director takes to arrive there feels like a sickening downward spiral that offers a harsh critique of society and only continues to propagate the scary image of post-Soviet Russia. Despite its bleakness, watching the masterful work of Zvyagintsev offers its own reward. This film did not win the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 for nothing.
Elena is not rated, runs 109 min. and is in Russian with English subtitles. Zeitgeist Films provided a preview screener for the purposes of this review. It opens in South Florida on Friday, June 8, at many independent cinemas Miami Beach Cinematheque, the University of Miami’s Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso, Living Room Theaters, Movies of Delray, Movies of Lake Worth and the Lake Worth Playhouse. For screenings across the nation, visit the film’s official website.