Keswick Film Club - Reviews - Elena

Reviews - Elena

Elena

Reviewed By John Stakes

Elena
Elena
"I remember well the moment when, holding my finished script in my hands. I glanced at a screen at an airport and there was a newsflash, just a few words and a number that told the story of two people – business woman from Moscow suburb commissions murder of her husband for 40,000 roubles. And it hit me then that the story of Elena is the story of the whole of society, the decaying social links, of violations of everyday life". Celebrated Russian Director Andrey ("The Return") Zvyagintsev describes his 2011 film "Elena" shown last Sunday in this way, and adds "I think it reaches out to everyone, so it is not particularly Russian".

Zvyagintsev's film indeed highlights the conflicts that can arise across the social and cultural divide in this drama of a married couple Elena (Nadezhda Markina) a sixtyish former nurse, and her wealthy much older husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) who used to be her patient. The nursing connection has continued into marriage with Elena tending to her husband's every need bar intimacy which is of no interest to him unless Viagra induced and the couple occupy separate bedrooms.

Each carries family baggage. Elena's son Sergei from her previous marriage is a dissolute layabout sponging off his mother and forever bickering with his wife over their teenage son Sasha. Elena wants Sasha to go to college and not the army; to make a better future for him and sparing him from becoming like his father with his attendant personal habits of reaching for the nearest beer can and globular spitting. She approaches Vladimir for money to cover fees but Vladimir refuses.

Vladimir is estranged from his daughter Katya, not surprisingly as he thinks of her as a hedonist fuelled by alcohol. But a heart attack brings Vladimir and Katya closer and Vladimir decides to draft a will in her favour. Driven by self preservation Elena abandons any notions of morality and sets out to kill her husband by poison. The writer Anthony Horowitz (who knows more about murder than most – eg "Midsomer Murders") says he can find only three reasons to kill: money, fear and passion. This time it's money. And Elena gets away with it.

The director introduces nature to highlight the human drama and Elena's plight. For example, and in true Hitchcockian style (but after a very long opening wait) Zvyagintsev has a bird flying in to settle on the branch of a tree through which the camera has been training on Vladimir's flat, and we keep hearing the plaintive cawing of crows to inform the drama and heralding the approaching kill. In appropriately muted colours (it would have worked even better in black and white perhaps?) Zvyagintsev paints his picture of domestic and social malaise culminating in cold clinical death. For Elena, the option of leaving and divorcing was never perceived by her as a solution to her problems and time, as the lawyers would say, was of the essence.

Zvyagintsev deployed his camera primarily in observational mode to draw attention to the charmless unattractive and rather drab townscape of Moscow suburbia mirrored internally by the sterile arid lives of both sides of the family with all the time in the world for Sergia's side to take in endless daytime television of such banality as to make UK television seem positively invigorating.

Having fashioned such a bleak social and emotional backdrop Zvyagintsev's characters seamlessly inhabited their surroundings. The quality of the acting distinguished the film. Markina's Elena and Evgeniya Konushkina's Tanya (Sergie's wife) displayed all their mothering instincts smothered by the cold, calculating joyless utterances of Vladimir and daughter Katya, and Sergie's torpid persona only became animated by his meal ticket demands on his mother's modest pension.

The dialogue tellingly punctuated the heavy atmosphere; cruel, stark and pointed particularly when delivered by Vladimir and his detached daughter, Katya effortlessly landing a verbal stab every time she opened her mouth. By the time Elena made her decision to kill it seemed the natural solution, and thus our sympathies for her remained intact. The low-key but jarring violin score from Philip Glass was appropriately spare on each of the four occasions it was used, picking out both Elena's despondency and determined survival instinct, and capturing the urban soullessness surrounding her. The slow even pace worked well for most of the time but for western sensibilities perhaps a few changes would have added depth to the unfolding drama.

"Elena" justifiably picked up a clutch of awards including the Special Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011 and the Golden Eagle Award for Best Film which is a little like winning a Golden Globe but it's Russian! Nadezhda Markina also picked up a Best Actress Award. She was exceptional at quietly conveying her inner conflict finally overcome and resolved by her desire for self preservation.

Next Sunday sees the screening of one of the most eagerly awaited films of recent years. "Amour", written and directed by Michael Haneke, won the Palme D'Or at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is Austria's 2013 Oscar-nominated entry for Best Film in a Foreign Language category. Unmissable? Come and find out.

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19th Keswick Film Festival

22nd-25th February 2018


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