Critics and admirers of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena” may find it easy to notice the obvious attributes of crime thriller, present in this film, but rarely seem to express their appreciation of its darkly comedic undertone.
Humor begins with the title, whose apparent similarity to the “arbitrarily chosen fist name” titles of many great works of classical literature (such as Samuel Richardson’s “Pamela”, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Emil”, or Jane Austen’s “Emma”, to name a few) may be deceptive. The title of the film (which is also the name of its protagonist) is ironic; it points to Helen, the Greek beauty who “infiltrated” the ancient city of Troy as a lover of Troyan prince Paris, and thus brought about the city’s destruction by the Greeks. (Troyan Horse, the fabled ruse of Odysseus, wasn’t, in fact, anything new: Helen, the Greeks’ unwilling “gift” to Troyans, was the original manifestation of the pattern.)
The parallels between Iliad and Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ”Elena” are hard to miss: Elena married Vladimir for his riches (and maybe also for love, but time and everyday routine has eroded her feelings), and yet remained loyal to her lumpenproletariat background, and never developed true emotional closeness with her rich husband. Vladimir’s naive trust to Elena’s kills him, and as soon as he’s dead and buried, his stylish apartment is invaded and plundered by the “Achaeans”: Elena’s son, his pregnant-again wife, and their children. (This may be a mere coincidence, but I like to imagine that actors Aleksey Rozin and Igor Ogurtsov had been cast not only because of their acting skills, but also thanks to their classic Greek profiles, resembling those from the red-figure pottery.)
Aleksey Rozin’s entrance, by the way, is one of the funniest episodes in the film, and even though his character was written by Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev in broad brushstrokes, as a caricature “Russian redneck”, Rozin’s acting is so authentic that the audience may be led to believe that Andrey Zviagintsev just hired a non-actor for that role, the way Italian neo-realist directors did it in late 1940s. Andrey Smirnov, as Vladimir, delivers subtle tour de force performance, slightly marred by one seemingly unmotivated emotional outburst in a dialog with Elena early in the film (most likely this effect came as the result of an unavoidable compromise decision, reached during the editing of that scene; it can therefore be disregarded). Nadezhda Markina shines in the title role; some of the most memorable moments are Elena’s Dostoyevskian confrontation with Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (acted by Elena Lyadova), the smile of pure ecstasy that blossoms on Elena’s face after she’s pecked on the cheek by her son, and, of course, the murder scene (“Your room is such a mess!”).
The overall acting style is very organic, pleasantly different from what one may expect from any typical Russian film – which is, of course, the accomplishment of the director, Andrey Zviaginstev, who helped his talented actors to be their best selves.
The work of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman is subtle and psychologically expressive: less acrobatic than in his other films made in collaboration with Andrey Zvyagintsev, but possibly more mature and sophisticated; lighting is superb. Music of Philip Glass, third movement of his Third Symphony, contributes suspense and dramatic significance to the narration.
It’s easy for anyone who is familiar with everyday Russian reality to overlook the comedy aspects of ”Elena”, and to think of this film as merely naturalistic (which, of course, it is), but an objective view reveals that the writers of the film had been relentless in their sardonicism (or, in the words of a certain popular singing comedian, they “never let up”): well-selected TV shows, functioning as the permanent audiovisual background to whatever else is going on (the “sausage testing” episode would be my favorite, sausage being the unmistakably phallic household status symbol in Soviet and post-Soviet proletarian Russia, similar to owning a Steinway grand piano by a perfectly non-musical middle-class American family); “erotic literature”, offered for sale to middle-aged housewives traveling in suburban electrical railway cars; migrant construction workers, marching in a really, really long column (just long enough to be realistic, while still being grotesquely long); the ridiculously humungous thermoelectric plant, serving as the backdrop to Sergey’s house and the environs; idle, beer-guzzling, chain-smoking teenage hooligans, whose favorite form of entertainment is getting their ass kicked by other hoodlums behind some rusted-out communal garages; hand-written inscriptions on house walls; the overpowering, all-pervasive terror of the mandatory conscription; the imperative for women to wear something on their heads in church (which functions more like a “99 cents store for the superstitious”, rather than as a religious institution); and finally, the pinnacle of sarcasm: Viagra as the instrument for the perfect murder (and especially the decision to add the second pill, for good measure).
Thematically, the funniest (in a bitter way), and crucially important element of the story is Elena’s key criterion for determining the value of a human being: fertility. The main, subtly veiled, conflict in the story is that between working class mother Elena and the decadent, cynical, sincere Katerina, who is adamant against having children, and whom Elena labels as “infertile”. Elena is driven to murder not by “burning desire for acquiring riches” (to quote Napoleon Hill), but, in roughly equal measure, by her obsessive emotional attachment to her son Sergey, and by her hatred and jealousy of her husband’s childless daughter from the first marriage. Elena isn’t greedy: she is instinctive; her protective impulse hasn’t only killed her rich husband, but has also ruined her son, by cultivating his sloth and depriving him of any self-sufficiency. This form of “motherly love”, rather typical for Russian mothers, and explainable by past and present Russian socio-economic realities, is the target of the film’s ruthless sarcasm.
Religious subjects, addressed in the film, are arguably even more important than its psychological and social themes, and I’d like to finish this article by quoting the words of the brilliant Russian scholar Igor Sivkov:
“It is significant that in church (this scene is very picturesque and stylistically different from the rest of the film, exactly the way it should be), Elena prays for her husband’s health, but soon after, having returned home, immediately kills him. This scene, in my opinion, contains the core of the film: it’s very easy to worship God superficially, but it is extremely difficult, and for most people impossible, to follow Him in practice. Anyone can run to a church and light a candle; any criminal can do it any time. But following God’s principles in life, that is, in practice, is rare: no one does that, and no one even considers that necessary. Elena’s love to her son blocks everything, including God.”
Thursday, February 21, 2013, 2:00 PM, New York