Starring: Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Elena Lyadova
You may like this if you liked: The Banishment (Andrey Zvyaginstev, 2007) A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, 2011), Biutiful (Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, 2010)
Elena and Vladimir are an older couple who come from different backgrounds. Vladimir is a wealthy and cold man; Elena comes from a modest milieu and is a docile wife. Elena has a son who is unemployed, unable to support his own family and he is constantly asking Elena for money. Vladimir has a daughter who is a careless young woman and has a distant relationship with her father. A heart attack puts Vladimir in hospital, where he realizes that his remaining time is limited. A brief but somehow tender reunion with his daughter leads him to make an important decision: she will be the only heiress of his wealth. Back home he announces it to Elena and her hopes to financially help her son suddenly vanish. This usually shy and submissive housewife then comes up with a plan to give her son and grandchildren a real chance in life.
For anyone who has seen Zvyaginstev’s previous two films The Return (2003) and The Banishment (2007) will know what to expect here. Elena contains essentially a very simple and basic plot, which could actually be quite easily covered in no more than twenty minutes. That is the beauty of film, the same story can be presented in so many different ways, and it is very often the director in charge of the audience and what route their emotional ‘journey’ takes.
What separates a film like this from so many others and makes it so much more engaging is that the audience is treated with the upmost respect and trust. Instead of being constantly told exactly how to feel to certain situations and characters, everything is presented in a consistently neutral and very matter-of-fact tone. There are no ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’, just realistic characters facing realistic everyday situations. Vladimir’s actions, though, not in Elena’s best interest perhaps, are completely justified. Likewise, Elena’s behaviour some would argue is irrational, but there is complete justification for it. What happens to this character in the grand scheme of everything may not be huge, but to the individuals involved it is massive and potentially life changing.
We are then left to make up our own minds on justifying character’s actions or not and ultimately ask ourselves “what would we do in this situation?” We then may question are own morality and then become instantly more engaged with the character’s situation and how they deal with it and the potential results. When eventually our protagonist faces a huge moral dilemma which is essentially the main plot piece of the film, it is portrayed in such a slow realistic way that we really start to rack our brains about what we would actually do and all the potential results of all potential actions.
By the time Elena reaches the end, there is no real ending or narrative closure and it leaves more questions than answers, but that is the point as that is exactly what life is like. This questions the actions of the characters, but we are engaged as we may well have originally come up with the conclusion that we would have done the same thing. What happens to the characters within the film could easily happen to us. Though, in my opinion this is not as good as the amazing and emotionally satisfying The Return, this is a definite improvement on the sometimes brilliant but sometimes infuriating The Banishment which was for me thirty minutes too long. Elena however is only 109 minutes and this feels just right.
I know for a fact that this film will not appeal to everyone, it is very slow and watching does require effort. However, if you fancy watching something that challenges and questions your morality and perspective on life then is a very rewarding viewing experience.