Friday, 29 July 2011

Andrei Zvyagintsev: Elena - Film Review

After suffering a bad case of the dreaded 'sophomore slump,' Russian maestro Andrei Zvyagintsev now stages a spectacular recovery with Elena, amply confirming the vast promise of his 2003 debut The Return. That picture's Venice Golden Lion sparked comparisons with countrymen such as Andrei Tarkovsky but his 158-minute, excessively enigmatic follow-up, The Banishment (2007), suggested he'd taken far too much notice of his debut's glowing reviews. Clocking in well under two hours, Elena shows Zvyagintsev wisely concentrating on plot, character and social/political context rather than portentous atmospherics. The cumulative impact is stunning.

Bafflingly (one might even say 'disgracefully') absent from Cannes competition, it did win Special Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard, the first stop on what will be a long, successful festival-circuit career. One of 2011's most accomplished films from any country, Elena emphatically warrants widespread arthouse and upscale-TV exposure.
Sixtyish, uneducated Elena (Nadezhda Markina, who resembles an older, doughier Frances McDormand) shares a spaciously luxurious city-center apartment - but not a bed - with her older husband, Vladmir (Andrei Smirnov). The pair met a decade before when Elena was a nurse and wealthy Vladimir her patient. Now she's clearly as much caretaker as spouse, the daily grind visible on her wrinkled face and shoulder-slumped frame.

Elena only comes alive when she treks cross-city to visit with her son Sergei (Alexey Rozin) and his family in their cramped, crumbling quarters. Unemployed, slobbish Sergei relies on Elena for cash handouts, which Vladimir grudgingly tolerates as he provides similar assistance to his wild-child daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova). But when extra money is needed to ensure Sergei's son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) dodges the army draft in favor of an (undeserved) university place, Vladimir refuses, compelling Elena towards drastic action.

While an unmistakable example of high-end, slow-paced art cinema, Elenastands out by harking back to classic noir thrillers, especially those in which inconvenient, wealthy husbands stand in the way of their wives' financial and/or romantic imperatives. The most potent recent Euro variations are the terse dramas of Germany's Christian Petzold, who adapted James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice into Jerichow (2008). ...

The Hollywood Reporter

One of the best reasons to go to any film festival is the thrill of a brilliant but under-promoted movie, something to cheerlead and encourage in its ongoing adventure around the world.

Making a pit-stop at the wonderful Tromsø festival in Norway's Arctic Circle is a sensational Russian drama called Elena, by Andrei Zvyagintsev, who debuted to great acclaim with The Return in 2003.

Somehow, his new film – which I'm not alone in considering superior in every way – still finds itself without firmed-up plans for UK distribution. This is a hopefully rectifiable state of affairs, but a sad one all the same: I hope it doesn't go the way of Maren Ade's lauded German relationship drama Everyone Else, which premiered in 2009, but has still yet to see the light of day in Britain.

Elena has the taut dramatic structure of a Dostoyevsky parable, matched with mesmerising long-take technique, a hushed, disquieting soundscape, and images that jangle in your head for days.

Zvyagintsev's memorable opening shot watches the sun rise on a plush Moscow apartment through the bare branches of a tree outside, on which a single bird nestles, until another one flutters down and joins it. We watch the morning routine of the title character, a late-middle-aged grandmother sleeping apart from her wealthy but difficult second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who draws his purse-strings tight and his heart-strings tighter.

Elena's son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) is an unemployed slob living in cramped surroundings with his wife and two sons, one of whom is in danger of being drafted off to Ossetia, unless the right people can be bribed to get him into college. Elena's gentle pleas to Vladimir, who could easily remedy this situation if he didn't resent it so much, aren't helped by her needling reminders that his own daughter is childless and never bothers to get in touch, at least until a shock heart attack that leaves the question of his inheritance uppermost in everyone's thoughts. ...

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