In 2004 World Film's Jurgen Fauth began his review of Andrey Zvyagintsev's The Return by calling it "sparse, deliberate and patiently observed." The opening sequence of Elena almost seems like a rebuke. "Patiently reserved? You ain't seen nothin' yet."
It's a nice way to begin a film that is actually (surprise) just 109 minutes but trades in the hefty moral issues familiar to Russian Literature and, therefore, demands to leave an imprint. It is the story of a 60-ish woman (Elena, if you were taking bets) who is married, later in life, to a wealthy man. She's his lover, sure, but his maid and cook first. Both have "no good kids" from previous relationships living outside the house. Hers is a son, and a basically well-meaning man, just a slob and a slacker completely unsuited to be a role model to his own doomed children. His is a daughter, a two-faced brat that is quick to whip out cute li'l Deschanel faces when rich Daddy has his heart attack at the gym.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) realizes that a change in her husband's will will prevent her horrible, King Joffrey-esque grandson from attending college. With no education he'll end up in the military or worse and end up a slackerish dunce like his old man. Faced with real world consequences to ethically questionable actions (or inactions), Elena must reconcile what is best for her family with how far over the line she's ready to step into the dark side.
The film's steady pacing offers just enough time to grow to despise everyone in Elena's world. Worst, of course, is the lummox grandson, the catalyst for Elena's moral downfall. As his grandmother struggles with fundamental issues of right and wrong, he's already fallen in with a bad, violent crowd. This sets up a remarkable magic hour rumble that is a strong contender for best one-shot pure cinema sequence of 2012.
Elena is an opera, really, and just juicy enough to keep those frightened off by "sparse, deliberate and patiently observed" filmmaking engrossed. I don't want to oversell it as a masterpiece, however. While it aspires to make grand statements and universal truths it is, at heart, a trashy story. What's important (and this is probably to the betterment of its entertainment value) is that beneath all of the technique Elena is, essentially, a film noir, just without the cool clothes. Maybe this the start of a new subgenre: cold-noir.