Over the course of the last decade Andrei Zvyagintsev has made a name for himself as one of the most talented Russian filmmakers working today; I still remember being stunned by his debut feature, The Return (2004), which was one of my favorite films of that year. His new film Elena is more muted and ultimately less shattering. But like The Return it demonstrates Zvyagintsev’s talent for finding tension and violence in the everyday. In Zvyagintsev’s films, dramatic power grows subtly and sinuously out of relationships between characters; although his films are rooted in specific Russian milieux (here, the world of contemporary bourgeois domesticity and its underside, that of the impoverished working class), they’re largely psychological films. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Zvyagintsev makes thrillers in which the dramatic tension grows out of both the psychological and the social dimensions of modern-day Russia. I recently heard him compared to Claude Chabrol, and I think that’s right; he has the same interest in plots that hinge on social and psychological manipulation, and the same taste for bitter irony.
The title character in Elena is a middle-aged housewife married to an affluent retiree; the two share a quietly affectionate, routinized existence in their well-furnished country home. But they continually butt heads over the problem of Elena’s son from a prior marriage, an unemployed roustabout who lives with his steadily growing family in a low-rent housing unit some distance away. Despite Elena’s repeated entreaties to help finance her grandson’s college education (if he can’t go to college, he faces military service), her husband Vladimir refuses to pay on the grounds that his stepfamily doesn’t deserve a handout. Meanwhile, he entertains a grudging loyalty to his own ungrateful daughter, whose aggressive individualism he seems to admire in spite of himself. And then an accident occurs, setting into motion a chain of events that prompts Elena to take decisive action in order to grant security to her son and his family.
In Zvyagintsev’s films, which are governed by an clear-eyed, unsentimental realism, acts of betrayal and murder are rendered matter-of-factly and with some sly amusement; these are the ways ordinary people go about getting what they want, his films seem to say. In the figure of Elena, he gives us a perfectly unremarkable, even dull woman—even her face seems stripped of character—who is nevertheless driven to desperate extremes. Frustratingly, though, the film doesn’t have much narrative momentum (even Philip Glass’s score seems to lack urgency). The final act is like a long, exhaled sigh that becomes a smirk, a kind of comic punchline. It’s perhaps a sign that Zvyagintsev is more interested in spinning a social parable, and in interrogating the figure of the Good Wife/Good Mother, rather than delivering an out-and-out thriller. But it still drags. Elena is, ultimately, the kind of well-made European art film that doesn’t suffer from any glaring flaws, but that doesn’t add up to anything remarkable, either. I still remember passages from The Return, which I last saw twelve years ago; I’m already beginning to forget parts of Elena.