Isn’t it high time that we recognize the existence of Russian New Wave films? That was my reaction to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Elena”, a film that opens tomorrow at NYC’s Film Forum for a two week engagement and that incorporates two of the essential features of the new cinema in Russia: social criticism and artistic innovation.
With its money-grubbing and deceitful characters, “Elena” evokes Balzac—not surprising given contemporary Russia’s affinity with mid-19th century France. Indeed, as Le Père Goriot’s Vautrin observed, “The secret of a great success for which you are at a loss to account is a crime that has never been discovered, because it was properly executed.” That is both the case of the oligarchy running Russia today and the eponymous character of Zvyagintsev’s film, the zaftig, 60ish wife of Vladimir, an elderly retired businessman who owes his success to a properly executed crime, namely the privatization of the Soviet economy.
We first meet Vladimir and Elena in their sumptuous but sterile apartment that has flat-screen televisions in every room and a kitchen filled with electronic gadgets that would put the French couple’s ultramodern house in “Mon Oncle” to shame. Elena, a former nurse, has “married up” but she did not marry Vladimir for his money. When she met him as an appendectomy patient in the hospital she worked at ten years earlier, she fell for him almost immediately. The lavish life-style was a bonus.
However, their economic differences create tensions especially when it comes to Elena’s son Sergei and his family who live in a rundown Soviet-era housing project that looks just like the worst council housing in Britain. Sergei is unemployed, and probably unemployable based on his shiftless character. His favorite pastimes seem to be drinking beer, playing video games with his equally shiftless son Sasha, and spitting on the street from his balcony. His mother could care less about his failings and relies on Vladimir’s fortune to keep him afloat. In her visits to Sergei, where she spends quality time with her new infant grandson, she appears far happier than at her cold but palatial apartment.
When Elena’s allowance to Sergei falls short of Sasha’s college tuition, she pleads with Vladimir to make up the difference. Since he is not particularly happy about keeping his son-in-law’s refrigerator filled with beer to begin with, he is even more loath to come up with the tuition fees. When Elena reminds him that this would make him army-bait and eligible to serve in Ossetia, Vladimir shrugs his shoulders and says that the army provides the best education.
Growing ever more desperate and resentful of Vladimir’s obsession with money, Elena plots what Balzac dubs a “perfectly executed crime”. But to be sure, this is not so much a crime melodrama as it is a study of class society. In contrast to Elena’s lumpen-like son and grandson, Vladimir’s daughter Katerina (Yelena Lyadova) is an articulate, elegantly dressed product of post-Soviet society with a hatred for her father and an equal hatred for herself. Addicted to sex, tobacco, drugs and alcohol, she has nothing to live for. When her father tells her that he gave her everything, she replies in effect, “Thanks for nothing”. Like Père Goriot, this is a man despised by his daughter.
In the press notes for “Elena”, director Zvyagintsev states:
I’m thrilled by the chance this story provides to explore the central idea of the early modern period: survival of the fittest, survival at any cost. With the growth of individual freedoms, society requires a corresponding growth of solidarity. Ever-increasing disengagement and individualism mean that people start to behave more and more like a bunch of tarantulas in a jar. This will be a rough drama — a pitiless, uncompromising look at human nature.
We see two old people who have what appears to be an entirely normal relationship. You could even say that these people love each other, though it’s not a passionate, youthful kind of love. We see their mutual care, gentleness and tact, which, along with their dedication and fairness, persuade us that they are bound by a lasting love.
However, if we choose to call the illusion of a commercial relationship “love” then, in a moment of crisis, individuals will always act first and foremost in their own interests.
I can also strongly recommend Andrey Zvyagintsev’s 2003 film “The Return” that I mentioned here and that is now available on Netflix streaming. Like “Elena”, the politics serves as a backdrop for some riveting human drama.