By Eric Kohn | Indiewire May 22, 2011 at 4:3AM
Andrei Zvyaguintsev starts and ends his third feature, "Elena," with the symbolic image of a barren tree, an accurate reflection of the dreary narrative sandwiched between those two shots. All three of the Russian director's features - alongside "Elena," he directed "The Return" and "The Banishment" - deal with troubled family life. Only "Elena," however, explicitly states said trouble before confronting its consequences. His latest work is the most overtly philosophical of the three, less concerned with plot than contrasting values. Terminally slow and simpler than its glacial pace implies, "Elena" is a resolutely minor work, but not without palpable intrigue.
The title character (Nadezhda Markina), an aging, retired nurse, married wealthy Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) two years before the beginning of the movie. The opening scenes reveal their low key existence, with virtually no dialogue, scant music and only the slightest amount of exposition. Having established that quiet tranquility, Zvyaguintsev gradually digs out the problems beneath it.
Elena's son from an earlier marriage leans on her mother to ask Vladimir for assistance in supporting his family. But the older man resists, leaning on a stringent work ethic and wondering why her son doesn't simply find a job. Elena fires back at him by pointing out the support he provides his own estranged daughter, a rebel whose cold worldview echoes that of her father's. He holds his ground: "I married you, not them," he says. Markina's face is tough to read: She takes his reaction into account, but the full impact that Vladimir's resolve has on his wife's familial allegiances never becomes entirely clear until she acts out.
Once that happens, "Elena" transitions from an observational character study to the familiar (if uniquely brooding) suspense drama. Elena's strategy for milking Vladimir's funds grows increasingly dangerous, and Zvyaguintsev makes it clear that she's hardly the innocent protagonist facing off against a greedy oppressor. In its best moments, "Elena" turns into an uneasy survival tale about the limits of self-control. Zvyaguintsev's matter-of-fact style reaches its pinnacle around the halfway mark, when the power relations between Elena and Vladimir appear to radically shift in a sequence so drawn out that the tension never really reaches a breaking point. It just builds and builds, as if in perpetual slow motion.
For a long time, this is a satisfying rhythm, although Zvyaguintsev shows glimmers of a better movie during the single scene in which Vladimir and his daughter exchange a few terse words after a heart attack lands him in the hospital. Glaring back at one another, the two eventually bond over their mutual cynicism. "What's irresponsible is producing offspring you know will be sick and doomed," the bitter girl says, to which she receives a smile. Despite its shortcomings, Zvyaguintsev successfully investigates this bleak prognosis, conveying Elena's discomfort as she battles to avoid an inevitably gloomy outcome. When that last shot arrives, it's still not clear if she pulled it off.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? The closing night film at Cannes' Un Certain Regard sidebar was well-received by that audience, but the extreme inaction will make it unattractive to most distributors. It could land a small U.S. distributor willing to take to market this material to an older art house crowd (Kino comes to mind), but the odds of a strong commercial reception are quite low.
criticWIRE grade: B