“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Leo Tolstoy wrote at the beginning of his famous novel Anna Karenina. This was true for the aristocratic clans in the tsardom of the 19th century and it is still valid for many societies, especially contemporary Russia with its glaring social contrasts. Elena by director Andrei Zvyagintsev, mainly known for his acclaimed 2003 feature The Return, is such a modern family drama that unfolds slowly. The film takes its time to observe the characters and the respective environments they inhabit.
It is the story of Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a woman about sixty years old. She is trapped in a marriage to Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), a rich and, on first glance, rather heartless older husband. They sleep in separate bedrooms, and her relationship has the appearance of a maid living with a wealthy employer than of a wife living with her husband.
The different social backgrounds they come from add to the contrast. Elena is a former nurse who met Vladimir while he was in hospital. Although there is certainly sympathy and even some intimacy between the couple, she is kept at bay by her husband. He favors his rebellious yet somehow also likeable daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), who both loves and hates her father. Elena, however, always has to take a backseat to her stepchild.
Vladimir’s preference becomes particularly obvious when his wife asks him for money so that she can bail her grandson out of the military and the rich man refuses. He does not want to support the sponging by her unemployed and useless drunkard son Sergei (Alexei Rozin), who lives with his teenage son, baby daughter, and pregnant wife in a shabby Soviet-era apartment next to a nuclear power plant.
A heart attack that Vladimir suffers changes the whole equation. He is taken to the hospital and realizes he does not have much time left. When he returns home, he first calls his lawyer to have his testament changed. Vladimir wants to instate Katya as his sole heiress, bypassing his wife and her deadbeat son. Afraid of her family’s future, Elena makes a desperate (and fatal) decision…
In a way, Elena is a cyclical movie. It concludes with exactly the same shot it opens with. We watch the luxurious apartment from afar. Nothing seems to have changed, judging from that camera angle, but everything has changed. The only constant is the main character, who remains living in the flat throughout the film and, ironically, as a one-time nurse decides over life and death.
The opening shot and the exposition that follows it could be taken right out of an Andrei Tarkovsky or Lars von Trier movie in the manner they examine the apartment and the two people inhabiting it. The beginning also evokes reminiscences of Zyvagintsev’s The Return, which possesses a similar cinematography to the one used by Mikhail Krichman in this film. A haunting score by Philip Glass perfectly supports the rich visual textures and fine performances by the actors.
So what else can we take away from Elena? It serves as a study of living conditions in modern Russia. Two worlds collide in it. There is the wealth of Vladimir and his spoiled daughter Katya on the one hand and the poverty of the down-and-out Sergei and his family on the other. Elena herself is caught in between the two and must be opportunistic by resorting to such drastic measures as she does in the final third of the film. It is almost as if the movie wanted to relay the message that luck comes to those who dare to take chances. The decision whether or not that is ultimately a good thing, however, is left to the viewer.