How do you say “deadbeat” in Russian?
The complicated relationship between husband and wife can be made even more difficult when the couple has children from a prior relationship. These children can often be the cause of great strife, especially when they are adults who financially depend on their parents. In the Russian film Elena, the title character and her husband collide over money, and what they believe to be a parent’s responsibility for their less than deserving grown children.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) met when he was in the hospital and she was his nurse. Now as husband and wife, they have settled into a comfortable routine, where Elena is still more of a nurse to Vladimir than a spouse. After he suffers a heart attack, Vladimir decides it’s time to write his will, and informs Elena his estranged daughter will inherit almost everything; while Elena will receive a life-annuity. Vladimir believes this to be a generous offer, but Elena is not so sure. Before Vladimir can complete the will, Elena devises a plan where she can get more than a simple stipend, enabling her to take care of her loser son and his family.
When a husband and wife sit down to have a conversation about money, it’s rarely an easy thing to do…especially when it involves grown children too pathetic to take care of themselves. Elena is blind when it comes to her son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). She refuses to see that he lacks the initiative to look for work, and choosing instead to live off the Russian government and the kindness of his mother. Now Sergey is pressuring Elena to ask Vladimir for money, because he is in yet another bind. Vladimir is reluctant, since Sergey still owes him money borrowed three years earlier. Vladimir believes it is time for Sergey be a man, stand on his own two feet, and — ouch!
Vladimir’s daughter, Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina), isn’t much better than her step-brother. A bitter and angry woman, Tatyana has a disdain for her father’s wealth, because she feels he neglected her as a child while working so hard to earn it. Still, she lives in splendor, thanks to the very wealth she resents. Tatyana is spoiled by her emotionally vacant father who gives her things instead of love, while she blames him for her miserable life. Just like Elena’s son Sergey, there is a history between Tatyana and Vladimir we aren’t privy to. Elena gives us a sense of the strain that exists between parents and children, showing the feeble ways in which both Elena and Vladimir try to make up for their parental shortcomings.
The key moment occurs when Vladimir matter-of-factly tells Elena that Tatyana will receive the bulk of his estate after he dies. He is relieved to finally get this off his chest, and doesn’t realize how much it hurts his wife. Elena is angry her ungrateful step-daughter will get so much, while she and Sergey will be virtually shut out. Without saying it, Vladimir has told Elena he values his daughter most. Elena feels betrayed by the man she has devoted her life to, even over the well-being of her own son and his family. Vladimir’s treatment of their marriage, as if it were nothing more than a business deal, leads Elena to make a very fateful decision.
Elena is directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, who does a beautiful job utilizing silence in a way that effectively conveys what the characters are thinking and feeling. There is very little dialogue. In fact, the first eight minutes of the film contains no dialogue at all. Zvyagintsev says he wanted to show “the entrance into the world as it’s waking up, and the rhythm of Vladimir and Elena’s lives.” So much is said without one word uttered, and it still feels as if we know who these people are.
Elena is presented in standard definition 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen, the visuals give us a crisp and clear view of the dreary Russian landscape. Zvyagintsev uses lots of muted colors (blues, greys, browns) to represent the gloominess of these people’s lives. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track highlights the deep and throaty Russian language, as the subtitles lay out the story before us. Extras include an in-depth interview with Zvyagintsev, a featurette on the making of the movie’s poster (very cool), and the film’s theatrical trailer.
Elena is an impressive Russian import whose lack of dialogue doesn’t hurt the film in the least. Zvyagintsev understands how powerful silence can be, and takes full advantage of his actor’s emotive talents to tell us this sad tale.
2012, Zeitgeist Films, 109 minutes, NR (2011)
VIDEO: 2.35:1 AUDIO: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Russian) SUBTITLES: English (SDH)
EXTRAS: Interview, Featurettes, Trailer ACCOMPLICES: IMDB