Elena is one of those movies that reminds us that every action will have a reaction. Eventually. And those reactions often have a way of catching up to us.
Beautifully directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev from a succinct script by Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, the Russian movie tells a story about middle-aged Elena (Nadezhda Markina), who is at an impasse having to decide between being the caretaker to her husband or helping out her son financially. The acting is stellar as is Philip Glass’s music score, which could be a character in and of itself, often setting the mood beautifully.
At film’s beginning, we see that Elena has a comfortable-on-the-cusp-of-boring relationship with her wealthy, older husband, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). The two not only sleep in separate beds, but separate rooms. They have a pretty set, complacent routine: she wakes up, gets him up, and makes them breakfast, where they discuss what each of them will be doing for the day. Despite their affluent apartment (reminiscent of a large Manhattan abode), we can immediately see Elena’s loneliness.
During one of their stagnant breakfasts, we learn that Elena and Vladimir each have a grown child from previous relationships and neither is particularly fond of the other’s. Elena feels Vladimir spoils his unappreciative daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova),who gives great performances in the few scenes she’s in, while Vladimir thinks Elena should stop giving money to her struggling son, Sergei (Alexey Rozin).
Elena’s son is married with two children and they live in a typical Russian block apartment, a poor man’s high-rise, which is much, much smaller than Elena’s place. (As someone who has spent a lot of time in Eastern Europe, I appreciated the realistic portrayal of Elena’s son’s life.) Her grandson will be sent to the ill-fated Russian army unless they come up with money for him to go to college. Elena is their only hope. When she asks Vladimir for the money, he denies her, implying that her son should stop having children he cannot afford and get a job instead of asking for hand-outs.
In the meantime, Vladimir ends up having a heart attack and needs to be on bed rest for a while. Elena becomes his caretaker, due to her nursing background. When he tells Elena he needs to write a will and that his daughter will inherit most of what he has, she is irate, but still goes to get him the paper he requested so he can start putting this in writing.
Elena then must choose: her husband, or her son. All she’d have to do is mix some of his unmixable medications together and burn the will. It seems simple enough, yet karma has a way of coming back to haunt people. Which is exactly what happens here. You’ll have to see the movie for yourself to see the outcome.
“Elena” has been in several film festivals and won many awards, most recently in January in Russia’s version of the Oscars, The Golden Eagle Awards. It won four (out of eight nominations), including Best Picture, Best Director (Andrei Zvyagintsev), Best Supporting Actress (Yelena Lyadova), and Best Camerawork (Mikhail Krichman).