Elena (2011)

Dir. Andrey Zyvagintsev. Starring Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova

“To understand all is to forgive all,” Tolstoy wrote, but Zyvagintsev seems to disagree. Elena is one of the boldest movies of the last decade because it is austerely antagonistic. One lane heads north, and on that highway there’s pity for the characters. Then there’s another lane heading south, where we feel disgust for them. It is difficult to imagine any other feelings for these spidery people. Much is made of the unusual marriage that Elena (Markina) and Vladimir (Smirnov) share. He is older than her by some years, although it’s not such a ridiculous age difference between adults who are both middle-aged or older. He is wealthy after a long life of business success; she was a nurse who was taking care of him when he was admitted to the hospital some years before. There is some physical attraction, but to watch the first ten minutes of this movie is to watch Elena act like a caretaker waking up her aging employer. There’s a brief kiss exchanged which puts the matter to rest, but all the same she is sleeping in a smaller bed somewhere else in this enormous apartment, waking up before him, changing the sheets.

Meanwhile, Vladimir still has a roving eye; even an emaciated old wolf will still lick its lips at a doe it can no longer bring down, and there’s certainly a predatory aspect to the way he watches a young woman work out while he’s walking on the treadmill. (This is apparently an old behavior; when he winds up in the hospital later in the movie, multiple people, himself included, make comments about him making headway with the nurses.) Elena’s devotion to Vladimir seems not to go much further than his devotion to her, as it’s clear that this marriage has turned into, if it was not always, a conduit to subsidize her deadbeat son’s family. Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) has no job. He lives with his wife, his seventeen-year-old son who takes after him, and an infant; at the end of the movie, it turns out that his wife is pregnant again, which makes Elena’s analysis of the the last baby (“an accident,” she tells Vladimir) ring a little hollow. In a movie full of people getting took, this is the only surprising incident where someone appears to have been double-crossed. Elena really seemed to believe that her son and daughter-in-law were “being careful” and made a mistake, when no precautions of the kind were being taken. It is an essential moment, as just about everyone in the movie is gullible in one way or another, but the announcement that she’s going to have another grandchild is the only time it feels like Elena is rubbing someone’s nose in it. Seeing as there’s a murder in this movie, that’s saying something.

There is no relationship that seems to flow naturally in this movie; they follow scripts that one has seen on TV, but the effect is canned. Elena talks more easily with Sergey’s wife, Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina), than she does with Sergey. The most human interaction Sergey has with anyone is when he gets his son Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov) to cough up the controller for some video game so Dad can show him how it’s done, which segues neatly into him refusing to come out of his son’s room to speak to his mother; even this leads into something from a sitcom. Vladimir and his daughter Katya (Lyadova) have a rough-and-tumble conversation while he’s in his hospital bed in which they insult one another for a minute until she finally hugs him and they kiss one another. In another movie, preferably one shown in the daytime on a cable network, this scene would be played up as a kind of reconciliation. It dies on arrival; we never see them together again, and Katya is as hostile and aloof in later scenes as she was before. If there is a natural relationship, it’s between Elena and her little grandson, but like, that’s a baby. It’s part of the reason that we cannot really feel sympathy for any of these people, not even the ones who are obviously in trouble. Vladimir has a heart attack while swimming, but he’s not an easy person to feel for, a libidinous Scrooge who has not yet been visited by any kind of instructive apparitions. Sasha gets the snot beat out of him, which is saying something considering the little booger he is; even so, it was his group that attacked another group of teenagers, and he happens to be the one who really reaps the whirlwind. We might feel bad for Sasha’s black eye or Vladimir’s flickering heartbeat, but these are purely physical ailments.

Even the troubles that Sergey’s family has with money hardly boil down to existential threats. Sasha’s not got the grades or the money to go to college, and so would wind up getting drafted. The family, Elena included, decides that the best way to manage the problem is to get money from Vladimir for Sasha to go to college; Vladimir, who has the stinginess one so often finds in rich people, is not so sure that he wants to be the best way to manage the problem. It is easy to blame everyone in this scenario. Elena knows that Vladimir bails out Katya, who has better clothes and a prettier face than Sergey but no more redeeming virtues than him. Vladimir knows that Sergey has made no attempt to improve his life or his family’s situation. Two brands of stubbornness are playing out over this key conflict discussed over porridge one morning. Vladimir believes he shouldn’t have to change what he does with his property just because he married someone. Elena believes Sergey shouldn’t have to change because Vladimir can support him. Neither one of them gets all the way to saying these things out loud, but in begging for money from her husband, Elena’s preferences are plain, and in bringing up past debts Vladimir’s are just as clear. In the end push comes to shove, and Elena kills Vladimir to get the money. It seems like this should constitute some alteration in Elena’s character, but it seems that she’s had it in her the whole time. The marriage was a business transaction, even if neither one of the parties involved would have admitted it, and given that, what Elena does is programmatic and prosaic, no more shocking than if she’d shorted Vladimir’s stock.

It is a nearly perfect murder, and done without much wringing of hands. Elena replaces Vladimir’s medication with his Viagra, burns the outline of a will that he’s been working on, lies to the investigators (“I didn’t even know he had it,” she says). In the hospital, Vladimir explained that the majority of his assets would go to Katya, while Elena, as his second wife, would get a not insignificant monthly allowance. Her plan allows her to take half of what Vladimir’s worth, keep the enormous apartment, and bring her family in. (Zyvagintsev and Bunuel are not easy bedfellows, but the last scene of the movie is so reminiscent of the Last Supper that Viridiana’s beggars portray.) It takes no time at all for Sergey to get comfortable on his late father-in-law’s couch, watching his TV, calling for Tatyana to bring him a snack while she’s in the kitchen. One is sort of disgusted at the man’s pretensions, but it is not such a different feeling from the disgust one feels at Vladimir’s insistence at holding some moral high ground about what a slob Sergey is while never seeing how much he has in common with his own daughter. So it is that the movie ends the way it began: a bare tree branch in the foreground, with the activity in the apartment behind it blurred. Someone is dead, and there are someones with a better apartment, but there’s nothing very different about these people from where they began some weeks before. Like they said on Seinfeld: no hugging, no learning.

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