There's No Such Thing as Different
“It’s not about the money.”
“That’s exactly what it’s about.”
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) sits across the breakfast table from her husband Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), a wide shot emphasizing the distance between them. She’s asking him to pay for her grandson’s college tuition, so that he might avoid going into military service. He’s refusing, on a vague but recognizable principle, that her perennially jobless son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin), should be supporting his own family. “Why are you always traipsing over there?” Vladimir asks. “He should drag himself over here.” they look directly at one another. Hunched over their porridge bowls. “Just drop it,” Elena says, “I don’t tell you how to treat your daughter.” In a disturbing sort of synch, they both put spoons to mouths as Vladimir agrees: “Dropped.”
The bit of dialogue comes early in Elena, and it comes with mostly wordless background, as a series of short scenes shows Elena and Vladimir waking in separate rooms. She sits for a moment on her bed, adjusts her hair in a dressing table mirror, heads to the kitchen to start coffee. He doesn’t wake until she opens his curtains, at which point a lump of designer comforter frame right shifts just a bit. Her room and bed are small, neat and simple; his bed is expansive, his window wide, his bathroom fine blue marble, glimpsed from a long shot from across the dark shiny hallway floor. She makes his bed. You might think Elena is Vladimir’s maid.
This is more or less correct, if not technically, then emotionally. Their relationship is indeed about money. Once Vladimir’s nurse and for the past couple of years his wife, Elena appears more resigned than devoted, dutifully accepting his judgment (“The porridge is perfect”), fetching a second cup of coffee, submitting to sex on his whim. Winner of Cannes’ Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize in 2011 and opening at Film Forum 16 May, the film doesn’t show the sex, only their argument—at the same table, again—concerning their children, followed by his promise to give her an answer about the money in a week, then his decision to bring her into his bedroom. “Come on, you,” he says, his head out of frame as he takes her hand. She laughs, briefly distracted from her worry over Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), the grandson. Cut to her back as she sits on his bed, putting on her blouse.
Elena’s demeanor barely changes when she’s with Sergey, who lives with his wife Tanya (Evgenia Konushkina) and Sasha in an apartment across town (Moscow). To get here, she must take a bus and a train, riding across literal tracks, past nuclear plant towers. Here she offers a small wad of bills, dotes on Tanya’s new baby, and patiently waits for tea in the cramped kitchen while Sergey and Sasha avoid her playing videogames, crouched on the floor in front of the TV she must have paid for. Though Tanya takes a minute to urge her son “to go drink tea with your grandmother,” her admonition has more to do with propriety than warmth or sympathy: you should try, at least, to be polite to the woman who pays your bills.
In this, Tanya follows the model embodied by Elena: women serve their families, they don’t ask questions or challenge authority. And in this, both Tanya and Elena seem, at first, opposed by Vladimir’s daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), resentful and quick-witted. Her father laments her unwillingness to cater to him, even to visit or call him. He calls Katya a “hedonist,” a term the undereducated Elena doesn’t understand, and so he translates (“You’d say ‘selfish’”), but still, he adores her, and tells her so when she comes to see him at the hospital, after he’s had a heart attack. As Katya observes him from the foot of his bed, rejecting his suggestion that she have children of her own (“We’re all bad seeds, subhuman,” she says, “I don’t feel like experimenting in that arena”) as well as his declaration of love (“See, that’s just what you need, to suck the life from your children”) until she doesn’t, submitting to a smothery, apparently heartfelt kiss.
As you see how Katya here resembles both Elena and Tanya, you might also rethink your assumptions one more time. As cruel and cool as Katya appears, she’s also, perhaps, honest (unless her coolness is wholly performative, a distinct possibility the film doesn’t explore), suggesting to Elena that she’s only married her father for his money. At the same time, each of the women performs to expectations. The film leaves not doubt as to the culture shaping these expectations, which may be traditional but are also reinforced now, in Putin’s political gamesmanship, in a repressive class system, and in distracting TV talk shows and game shows, featured here repeatedly as a kind of soundtrack accompaniment (during one especially strained moment, Elena’s TV screen is reflected in the perfect kitchen cabinet behind her, an expert pronouncing what makes a sausage taste good).
As much as expectations for women are limiting and exasperating, they pay off as much as they exact costs. The women in Elena don’t fight so much as they find ways to subvert, secretly and alone. And the men go on about their business, carelessly and selfishly.