Russian studies

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Zeitgeist Films
Nadezhda Markina, right, plays the title role in Elena, directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, in an undated handout image.

Carefully crafted ‘Elena’ a complex portrait of a woman and her actions

Maybe it’s because of the deliberate pacing, or maybe it’s the cleverly conceived, ambivalent ending, but, for whatever reason, the new Russian film Elena is the type of movie that would never be made in this country. And, if made, it would probably have to fight to find room in a multiplex filled with car crashes, spaceships and cuddly animated animals.

Elena is a complex character study, one that seems to suggest, contrary to Dostoevsky’s imaginings, that it might be possible to commit a crime without punishment. Writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev moves so deliberately in his approach, abundant time passes not only before a crime is committed but also before it is even considered.

Zvyagintsev trusts his audience, as he slowly builds a portrait of Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and her personal life, her relations and obligations, as well as her tenuous situation at her palatial Moscow apartment with her older husband, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).

In what seems an innocuous deception, she hides from him that she secretly visits her son by a previous marriage. But once there, the son badgers her to wheedle money from Vladimir for her irresponsible grandson’s college tuition.

From here, the plot kicks into high gear even if the action does not. Elena and her husband argue about the money for the grandson, as it becomes evident that Vladimir, while not portrayed as a bad person, believes the expenditure will be a waste of money. And he’s probably right.

Zvyagintsev deftly draws small character traits for Elena. These minute touches lead to a better and fuller understanding of her when she diverts from what had previously been seen as the quality of her character. So by the time she executes what looks like a daring scheme to solve her problems, it looks natural.

While Zvyagintsev adds to his building portrait of Elena, he also constructs an increasingly nihilistic portrait of the extended family. Eventually the no-exit portrait of the family becomes clear: No matter what Elena does and no matter what crime it looks like she might get away with, she, and her family, will still be stuck in a hell of their own making.



*** 1/2

Not rated, 109 minutes.

Opens Friday at the Angelika Dallas.


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