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ELENA (director/writer: Andrey Zvyagintsev; screenwriter: Oleg Negin; cinematographer: Mikhail Krichman; editor: Anna Mass; music: Philip Glass; cast: Nadezhda Markina (Elena), Andrei Smirnov (Vladimir), Yelena Lyadova (Katerina), Alexey Rozin (Sergey), Evgenia Konushkina (Tatyana), Igor Ogurtsov (Sasha), Vasiliy Michkiv (Lawyer), Alexey Maslodudov (Vitek); Runtime: 109; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Alexander Rodnyansky/Sergey Melkumov; Zeitgeist; 2011-Russia-in Russian with English subtitles)

“Absorbing but slow-moving family drama taking place in post-Soviet Russia.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Andrey Zvyagintsev (“The Return”/”The Banishment”) directs this absorbing but slow-moving family drama taking place in post-Soviet Russia.Oleg Negin co-writes with Zvyagintsev, keeping the dialogue sparse, the scenario somber and with the striking message that the new Russia is just as hopeless as the old Russia–suggesting it must be in the genes.

Wealthy sixty-something businessman Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov) has lived the last ten years with the late fifty-ish Elena (Nadezhda Markina), the lower-class grand-ma who cared for him after his first heart attack. They live in his luxurious well-equipped with the latest conveniences Moscow apartment. Elena is still devoted to her loafer unemployed beer-guzzling oafish son Sergey (Alexey Rozin), whom she secretly supports by giving him money that hubby doesn’t approve of, as she travels on regular visits a long distance by train to the other side of town to visit with money his shabby apartment in a decrepit industrial part of town. Sergey’s deadbeat 17-year-old son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) is a poor student and hangs out with the local teen thugs. Dad wants money from Vladimir to bribe officials so his screw-up son won’t be drafted into the army and will get into the university despite bad grades, but Vladimir is hostile to that suggestion. Vladimir is estranged from his cynical, embittered and hedonist spoiled daughter Katerina (Yelena Lyadova), from his first marriage. When Vladimir has a second heart attack while working out in the gym pool, he patches things up with Katerina during a hospital visit and decides to make a will that will give her the estate and leave his wife with merely a monthly income. Elena, when told this, chooses her family obligations over the concerns of her hubby and manages to kill him through the misuse of the drugs before he writes the will and also is slick enough to make his death appear as if caused by too much exertion from sex.

The austere pic asks questions about family loyalty, morality, lust, materialism, class differences and why Russia is unable to change for the better even with a new wealthy class. It covers that ground by using its troubled heroine, the only character in the pic that it’s possible to care about and the only one able to show some selfless compassion for others, to contrast how she navigates the polar opposite worlds and how she still is more at ease with her low birth family than her new upward status. Elena, when faced with economic security, shows she can be crafty and immoral, capable of even killing someone who trusted her and gave her a chance to find a new life of material comfort.

The result is a satisfactory suspenseful film noir that covers the usual Chabrol and Hitchcock territory, and does a good job exploring how money can poison one’s mind. Aided further by solid performances by the capable cast and an appropriate Philip Glass score, the film moves into existential turf. The film’s best line is spoken by Katerina to her receptive dad: “Shit’s gotta be tasty. A million flies can’t be wrong,”

In Cannes it won the Special Jury Prize.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”