Cleaning House in the New Russia with ‘Elena’


Dostoyevsky meets Patricia Highsmith in Elena, a study of malaise in modern Russia that takes its sweet time building into a tale of crime and existential punishment. It compares and contrasts the rich and poor, and men and women. Elena (Nadezdha Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in a separate but unequal marriage in a fabulous apartment. He’s a wealthy businessman (we can only speculate on what that means), while she’s the nurse he met after a heart attack several years ago. In many ways, she’s still his nurse. In both his apartment and the cramped shoebox where her son lives with his wife and children, the paterfamilias sits around waiting for women to attend on them.

Vladimir despises this lazy, jobless son of Elena’s, so he wouldn’t countenance any comparison between them. He also resents any comparison with his own spoiled “hedonist” daughter, who’s lazy because she can afford it. The movie implies that no matter which class the parents belong to and how hard they’ve worked, their offspring are unworthy of them. In Russian movies, the hardworking mother typically symbolizes Russia (deliberately or not), while the man symbolizes its troubled history as determined by leaders, soldiers, and now the nouveau riche. Here, it must finally be the woman who takes action, fearful as she is of both economic and spiritual payback.

The fiercely scrutinized on-screen behavior rests on concrete details, like the difference between public transportation or the luxury of taking a cab, or driving your own restlessly stereo-drenched car through a street of workers. At any moment of held breath, one of two ominous sounds ratchets up on the soundtrack: passages from Philip Glass’ 3rd Symphony, or the omnipresent caw of crows, those traditional birds of death. The film has more than one variety of crow ready to swoop in for the pickings in this austere, mournful, ironic portrait. DVD extras are a director interview and, unusually, a piece about designing the poster.

RATING 8 / 10