For whatever reason, I have the preconceived notion that any foreign movie I’m viewing is bound to be better than whatever American alternative I could be watching at the moment. I’m not sure if it’s the difference in sensibilities, or the lack of American film tropes, but international cinema speaks to me. Unfortunately, in the case of Elena, sometimes the characters speak as if they’re on the wrong side of a stroke, and with as little actual content as possible. It’s too bad I wasn’t bored to death, because decomposing in a coffin for the next few years seems worlds more entertaining than this movie was.
The fact that Elena has amassed critical acclaim leads me to believe that a lot of critics think that plot is entirely unnecessary as long as there are plenty of static shots where absolutely nothing happens. The entirety of this story could take place inside a dream sequence of one of Mr. Rogers’ puppets, and a musical number would still have to be added to give it a pulse. Seriously, you’ll watch the two-minute opening shot of the outside of a house and think I’m just overreacting, but for the next hour and forty minutes, you will understand. You’ll say, “Damn, do I really need to watch this entire group of incidental people walk into a building, hanging around for several seconds after the door is closed and fucking nothing is happening?” No, you don’t. Accomplish this by never watching this movie.
Wife and mother Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is having trouble getting her wealthy husband of two years, Vladamir (Andrey Smirnov), to lend her son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin) the money for a college education, instead of having him enter the military. Vladimir is reluctant, saying the jobless Sergey should step up and make the money himself. After suffering a heart attack, Vladimir is put into the hospital, where he requests a meeting with his distant daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova), whom Elena doesn’t get along with. To say anything else would be a spoiler because nothing else happens.
I’m shitting all over the onscreen lack of action, but what of the meaning behind the scenes? What does it say about class struggles and gender relations in modern Russia? Well, considering Vladimir seems like an okay guy, and Sergey seems like a complete fuck-up, it doesn’t really say anything new to me. The men in this movie demand--instead of ask—things of their wives, but I don’t think that conveying this properly really adds anything to a story. Elena’s motivations during the movie are completely unsound, regardless of how desperate a person she is. And Katya isn’t so fully realized that the audience sides with her or jeers at her; she merely smokes disaffectedly wherever she wants.
But maybe even the most incidental moments might have been more appealing had director Andrey Zvyagintsev not surrounded anything important with meaningless, meandering shots of nothing happening. Had twenty minutes of “camera pans across room as Elena makes tea” scenes been erased, it still wouldn’t have been a tight film, but I may have saved my jaw from all the yawning. Once Vladimir isn’t in the hospital anymore, we literally have to watch a nurse strip the bed and re-sheet it. There are loads of these moments, when a character will do something, and the camera will just linger long after the action is complete. It’s like the director had a pre-determined feature length, and he just bullshat his way through it--like a child’s book report containing the word “very” a dozen times in a row. For being dubbed a “thriller,” this film has a serious disinterest in thrilling anyone.
When all is said and done, and the dust has taken all day long to fall, even Elena’s plot, regardless of its lack of complexity, is hackneyed and predictable. This story has been told at least a billion times, and from every possible perspective. At the end of that day, Elena has added nothing to it.
The features here are scarce, and that’s okay with me. “About Elena” is a half-hour long interview with director Andrey Zvyagintsev, where he energetically discusses the translation of the film’s screenplay from English to Russian, and the additions made to personalize it. He talks about themes and meanings, mentioning “silence is louder than words sometimes,” and I had to laugh. However, all in all, this one feature is an insightful talk from an intelligent man.
If you’ve ever wanted to see anyone screenprint a movie poster, there are two and a half minutes of information on how to do it present on the disc. The poster itself is pretty, but is roughly as one-note as the film is. If this feature-length twenty-minute Alfred Hitchcock Presents plotline sounds like something you’re interested in, go for it. It’s on Netflix now, as well. Don’t be surprised if your Instant Queue judges you, though.