SIFF Film Review – Elena
In the new Russian film Elena, which premiered locally at the Seattle International Film Festival, Nadezhda Markina stars as the title character. In her early 60s, she is a dutiful wife to her rather cold and curmudgeonly older husband, Vladimir (played by Andrey Smirnov). Each day she dutifully performs the morning chores, prepares breakfast, wakes Vladimir, and serves his daily needs. She seems to perform her daily duties out of a genuine sense of love.
Also, Elena tries to sneak in visits to her rather ungrateful son’s family. Unemployed and lazy, her son has an unpleasant nag of a wife, a jaded teenage son, and a toddler for whom Elena often cares. Shown quite believably, Elena seems to love her son’s family more than they love her. But they’ve been bugging her to beg money off of Vladimir to keep her grandson out of the military by buying his way into college. When Elena carefully approaches her husband about this, he refuses, so as to teach her son a lesson. Then Vladimir falls ill, and while in the hospital he tries to reunite with his estranged daughter. Elena and his daughter don’t much like each other. But family is family, and Vladimir plans on leaving his daughter his estate. This launches Elena into a plan to secure her family’s security.
The best way to describe this film is if Anton Chekov wrote a version of Double Indemnity. While described as a crime thriller, it fits in that genre only by the barest of margins. In a classic Russian sense, this story is about quiet suffering, unpunished wrongdoing, and guilt. And it is told with such kitchen sink realism that it almost feels glacially slow at times. When Elena is shown doing her daily routine, each step of making the beds, preparing breakfast, opening blinds, and preparing Vladimir for his day is filmed in aching detail. This all says something about her character, but it is meticulous.
In fact, it can be argued that pacing of this type is an argument for watching film in the theater. If you tried to watch Elena at home on the couch on a Sunday afternoon, most likely you will fall asleep. That sounds like an insult to the movie, but it’s not. The film demands that you pay attention to the mundane. In a theater, where you can’t pause the film, where no phones ring and no laptops are distracting the audience—where you pretty much have to watch—is where the audience would appreciate this most. That’s a kind of mindset we don’t appreciate enough anymore. Foreign films tend to demand this more from their audience, for good or ill.
The main draw of Elena is Nadezhda Markina. She elicits sympathy from us. Her character is navigating a familial tightrope and trying to make everyone happy. That can’t always happen, and while her deadly solution works for her, the result lands her in the same servant role she was in from the start. It’s good to note that in a quiet Russian film like this, there is still a starring role for a pudgy older woman. She is allowed to be complex, a bit sexy, and real. Hollywood doesn’t afford real women of this type the kinds of roles where past menopause they still get to be seen as a fully realized character. Whether dealing with her character’s rather repugnant son, tending to her husband’s sexual wishes, or manipulating family dynamics for money, Markina is interesting to watch.
For those who enjoy carefully drawn characters, Russian suffering, or intimate family drama, you will enjoy Elena. Some will find it slow and drawn out. But the performances make it worth watching.
Final Grade: B