When you first see Elena (Nadezhda Markina), you might think she’s the housekeeper. She rolls out of bed at dawn, bones creaking, then trudges through the chicly minimalist penthouse, throwing back curtains and gently waking the master in his separate bedroom. But no, she’s the wife here. Her quiet subservience to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) tells you a lot, though, even before you learn their back story.
Winner of a jury prize at Cannes, “Elena” is the latest from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev. His 2003 feature debut, “The Return,” was an astonishment, an emotionally grave and visually haunting fable about two boys dragged on a trip into the Russian wilderness by a father they barely know. Zvyagintsev’s new movie doesn’t match his first, but it’s damn good in ways that sneak up on you, even days after you see it.
When they met 10 years ago, Elena was a nurse and Vladimir her wealthy patient; she married up. Though their relationship is cordial — even sexy, as demonstrated by a playful daytime bedroom tumble — they are not equals. Vladimir is the sort of businessman who focuses on the bottom line in every situation. And (possibly to his credit?) he sees no reason to pretend otherwise when discussing his thoughts and plans with Elena over breakfast.
She has a grown son from a previous relationship who lives in a bleak high-rise with a wife and two children. He’s jobless, and seems incapable of figuring out how to get a job. And his teenage son needs cash for college, or he’ll be drafted.
Elena asks Vladimir for the money. He says he’ll think about it, but adds, “Why am I supposed to support your son’s family?” Still, he can hardly hold parental superiority over Elena. His own adult daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), is a sardonic piece of work, happy to take daddy’s money just so long as he doesn’t expect her to offer anything like gratitude or filial love. “It’s not my fault that she’s the way she is,” Vladimir says when Elena complains about Katya’s selfishness. But it’s no more Elena’s fault that her son, as Vladimir puts it, spends his life seeking rescue from one “situation” after another.
To tell much more about the plot would be to rob the movie of some of its austere power. Not much happens, except just about everything. Glacially engrossing, “Elena” is like a deconstruction of film noir, in which potential melodrama is ground to a powder beneath the wheels of modern Russian realism. Time-honored noir elements are there: greed, need, pilfered money, a suspicious death. But director Zvyagintsev builds suspense by playing on our genre-fueled expectations of all the ways the events we’re watching could go terribly wrong. Then the movie subverts those expectations with cool mastery.
People have their reasons. That’s basically the message. The film refuses to demand our sympathy or complete identification with one character or another. The central event is shocking. Yet the shock comes not from the act itself but from the pragmatic, implacable logic behind it, and the cool way it’s accomplished without excessive dramatic underscoring.
An exercise in style and a deeply ambivalent examination of morality, “Elena” demands patience. It’s slow. And, yes, the shots of crows and the sound of their caws on the soundtrack (as well as excerpts from Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 3) teeter on the pretentious. But they work. So does Markina’s unglamorous, poker-faced performance as a woman who is as good as circumstances allow her to be, and who can also be as bad as is required.
If you like this movie, rent “The Return” — that is, if you can commit to watching something brilliant without hitting “pause” to text somebody or go to the fridge for nibblies. Give yourself a challenging, gorgeous present. It’s a movie you’ll want to talk about. So is “Elena.”
“Elena.” With Nadezhda Markina, Andrey Smirnov, Aleksey Rozin, Elena Lyadova. Co-written and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. In Russian with subtitles. Unrated. 109 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.