This is the story of a marriage between a cold, penny-pinching Russian capitalist conservative and his working class wife. In “Elena,” a successful retired capitalist married the nurse he met while recovering in a hospital from appendicitis. He apparently married her to extend her caregiving on a more personal level, meeting his needs and taking care of his household.
Andrei Zvyagintsev magnificently directed this insightful Russian film written by Oleg Negin. The story’s conflict manifests in not only how these two spouses use each other, but in how they indulge their respective children and create a dependent, irresponsible lineage.
The intended Russian audience, perhaps fascinated and excited about potential capitalistic opportunities, comes from a communist background where citizens were once assured a job and prided themselves on their self-sufficiency and sense of community. However, in this snapshot of post-communist Russian society the capitalist is cold, using his red-headed wife, perhaps representing Mother Russia, only to meet his own self-centered needs. In his detachment he fails to respect as an equal partner the very person he depends on for his existence.
Elena, his wife, was married before. Her son is unemployed and lives with his family in a poor little town across the street from three colorfully painted nuclear power plants. Their son plays video games and with his father routinely ignores and disrespects the women in their family. The new generation is depicted as bored, restless, disrespectful and morally bankrupt. Elena only appears appreciated for the money she brings to help them out.
This situation is bleak. But the audience is pulled into the frustration of the conflict, seeing a need for the capitalist to relinquish his self-centered focus. He leads a materialistic and utilitarian life.
And Elena? We just wish she would stop enabling her lazy parasitic family with her financial support.
The entire situation reaches a breaking point when Elena beseeches her husband for college tuition money for her apathetic loser-grandson so that he can avoid the army and go to school to make something of himself -which we think might only ironically occur if he went in the army for some hard core discipline. In response to her request her husband refusing and then explains that he is leaving his estate to his spoiled, disrespectful (also unemployed) daughter upon his death.
“Elena” premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, in the Un Certain Regard section, where it won the Jury Prize. It is a monumental work on the conflicts behind any society that allows extreme political social theory to dominate over compromise and moderation. It is also a glimpse into life in the new Russian Federation. Elena’s eventual surprise shift from passive acquiescent servant-wife to cunning problem-solver may perhaps be a little foreshadowing of what may happen with Mother Russia should the new social order based on capitalism and its possible disregard for the common person not respect the very people who supported its emergence.
“Elena” will show at the 35th Annual Portland International Film Festival
on Feb. 20 and 23, 2012.
Director: Andrei Zvyagintsev
Writer: Oleg Negin (screenplay)
Cast: Yelena Lyadova, Nadezhda Markina and Aleksey Rozin
Country: Russian Federation
Release: 2011 in Russia
Language: Russian with English subtitles
Runtime: 109 minutes
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ELENA will open at Film Forum in New York City on May 16 and at the Nuart Theater in Los Angeles on May 25; a national release will follow.