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About.com Rating 3 Star Rating


Zeitgest Films

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."

As dawn slowly (slowly) rises and morning birds chirp, the ice on the branch of a tree outside a sleek Moscow apartment is just about to crack. Wait for it. Wait for it. It has to happen soon. It just does.

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.

These are big decisions and director Andrei Zvyagintsev doesn't pull punches with how they are presented. The takes are long - oftentimes master shots letting the characters work around one another in diametrically opposed interior spaces. Elena's home is modern, clean (she first met her husband as his nurse in a hospital) while her son's is cramped, filled with ashtrays, clanking teacups, video game cords and beer bottles. There are no shots of feet, but I'm sure they're on thick, dirty carpeting.

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.

The plotting is straightforward (and, let's face it, slow) but the central character is empathetic enough to draw you in and force you to really study the frame. The travel between locations is an arduous, transfer-heavy train ride punctuated by a Philip Glass score. When there isn't music there are blaring television sets of varying price point, always tuned to tabloid news or reality programming. (That last dig is, no doubt, meant for us in the audience perhaps feeling a little superior to this mess of a family.)

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.

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