Family feud – Elena review

Elena – Starring Nadezhda MarkinaAndrei Smirnov, and Elena Lyadova. Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Rated M. Originally published April 9, 2012. By Simon Miraudo.

Over the past few months we have seen compassion-fests like BuckThe Kid with a Bikeand Le Havrewhere the good-hearted were cosmically rewarded for their patience and kindness during difficult times. Now comes Andrei Zvyagintsev‘s Elenawhich suggests compassion isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

When we first meet the eponymous Elena (Nadezhda Markina, who disappears completely into the role), she rises in her modest bedroom where she sleeps alone, and spends some time brushing her hair and fixing it in a bun. The next time we see her repeat the act, our understanding of this character and our interpretations of her actions will have changed immeasurably. It is only one of many routines that we see repeated over the course of the film; each time something slightly off, and not once is it ever a coincidence. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. She awakens a gentleman in an adjacent room, before fixing breakfast and going about her chores. Later we discover he is her husband, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), a callous, self-made gentleman who sees no need for his relationship and arrangement with his wife to be any different to how it was when she was just his live-in nurse.

Elena has a thoughtless son named Sergey (Alexey Rozin), to whom she is bound by her maternal instincts to care for, and who needs money to keep his own unruly offspring out of the Russian army. Vladimir feels no compulsion to provide for his spouse’s family. Instead, he’s saving his estate for his equally thoughtless daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova). The hand of fate seemingly strikes down Vladimir for his wickedness early in the picture, as he suffers a heart attack and Elena is returned to her position as nurse.  However, as we eventually get to see Vladimir and Katerina’s complicated but loving relationship first hand, particularly in contrast to Elena and Sergey’s obligation-driven bond, our interpretation of their motives shift. Elena, who, with Vladimir finally in a position of weakness, attempts to secure her husband’s cash by any means necessary, and proves herself rather adept at wickedness too.

Elena is the anti-Kid with a Bike. Though they share much in common – the occasional stings of orchestral score, a depiction of cruelty towards one’s own kin, and, in their shocking finales, violence between children – Elena offers no hope for those endowed with empathy as the Dardenne brothers’ film did. Zvyagintsev illustrates his point beautiful, particularly in the way he challenges our expectations at every turn (such as with the aforementioned doubled sequences, gorgeously realised by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman). The road to hell may indeed be paved with good intentions. Elena presents us with characters who are, oblivious or not, hard at work on setting the asphalt.


Check out Simon’s other reviews here.

Elena arrives in Australian cinemas June 21, 2012.

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