‘Elena’ is modern film noir at its finest. This stylish psychological thriller is chilling. Russian director Andy Zvyagintsev has crafted a remarkably suspenseful film. Shot in gritty, present-day Moscow. The cold urban exteriors accentuate the drama that slowly unfolds before the audience. Zvyagintsev skillfully reveals the story to us through a talented Russian cast and the sparing use of dialogue. The opening scene of the film is an exterior shot of a crow sitting on a tree branch. The sound of the crow cawing is haunting. It is a foreboding sign of events to unfold later in the film. Zvyagintsev’s visual style reminds me of Alfred Hitchcock’s camera techniques used to build suspense. It serves ‘Elena’ well.
The story opens in a contemporary suburb of Moscow. The apartment is modern and upper-class. We meet an older married couple Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). The first thing that hits the audience is the ocean-blue colors that fill the apartment. As a matter of fact, this light ocean-blue color is a dominant theme throughout the entire film. It is brilliant cinematography by Mikhail Krichman. It sets the perfect tone for the story. Another thing that strikes out at us is the odd relationship between the couple. Elena acts more like a caregiver than the love of Vladimir’s life. That is precisely what this marriage is – an arrangement.
Vladimir is a wealthy individual. We never find out how he made his fortune but it is not important to the overall story. What is important is that Vladimir (in his upper 60s) had some health issues that required a nurse. Elena took care of Vladimir and the two eventually got married. Elena has the appearance of a strong peasant woman. She rarely smiles and serves her husband his meals like a dutiful wife. They don’t even sleep in the same bedroom. The filmmaker gradually reveals Elena’s real place in the household. It is well-executed the way the story comes together. Russian playwright Chekhov would have been proud.
The calm relationship between the married couple is ruined every time their children from other marriages are brought up in conversation. This is when the story really gets good. No matter how nasty Vladimir’s estranged daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) is to him, he still supports her. Elena also brings baggage to the marriage with her ne’er do well son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin). Both Lyadova and Rozin play the roles of the self-absorbed siblings convincingly well. Elena asks Vladimir for money in order to help Sergey’s lazy son get into college and stay out of the Army. When Vladimir refuses, you can cut the tension with a knife. Again, Zyvagintsev uses long pauses and harsh facial expressions to give the scenes resonance.
The important question this film addresses is how far would you go for someone you love? For any fan of Film Noir, this thriller is a must-see. It reminded me of classic Hitchcock with a modern twist. It won the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival. The DVD of ‘Elena’ hits stores on October 30th. Please visit Zeitgeist Films to get more information about this gripping new thriller you’ll want to have in your film collection http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/elena/. Check out the official trailer http://youtu.be/drDu9Ta1JWc.