Monday, July 21, 2014

Elena (2011)

A bird is seen perched upon a cold, lifeless, leafless tree. Simultaneously, we see interiors of a similarly cold, empty, but plush, wealthy home. The opening frame of the dry tree is so dead, that we are almost tricked into believing that it is a still frame, but for the diegetic crowing of a few birds. The stillness and the dead calm of the tree and of this particular shot is suddenly destroyed when another bird enters the scene and perches itself on the other end of the branch, and shakes it vigorously, thereby disturbing the tranquility and creating ripples in an established, stable system.

The central plot of Andrey Zvyagintsev's "Elena" (2011) sums up this scenario to a significant extent. A portly old ex-nurse Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is married to a wealthy ex-patient she took care of some ten years ago. The husband is an old rich man by the name of Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). He has an estranged, hedonist daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) from a previous marriage, who admittedly needs her father only for the money. Elena, on the other hand, has a no-good son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), from a previous marriage, and his family, including a 17 year old grandson who desperately needs money to get into college, failing which he may have to be sent to military service. 

Each member of the couple ends up defending their own blood child when it comes to arguing about who deserves more attention and care based on their overall demeanor and gratefulness toward their respective parent. A sudden change of events concerning Vladimir's health problem leads to the question of a will, which leads to further complications, as Katya's change of heart towards her father and vice versa pose as a threat to the future of Elena's wasted son. Blood threatens to be thicker than water, and circumstances put Elena in a fix as she finds herself subjected to the ultimate test of loyalty...!

Zvyagintsev, who previously crafted an equally complex, gripping and effective family drama, "The Return" (2003), surprises and disturbs with this minimal tale that unfolds with its deliberate pace and calm atmosphere, and yet hits you like a ton of bricks when it gets to its turning point. This time around, Zyvagintsev takes his own sweet time in letting his audiences observe his characters. And therefore, in what may seem like wasted running time, we are shown some subtle, yet deliberate sequence of events, that make us well aware of the kind of characters we are dealing with.

The many shades of gray of each character are revealed in some realistic and convincing sequences, never far-fetched. Nevertheless, it is nothing that would make you hate or love a character, but merely understand where the person is coming from and what kind of an influence he/she may have on the people who they are closely related with. 

Quite a few fleeting clues are thrown about, hinting at the overall message of the story and how a bad seed begets a bad seed, and how every person needs to gauge their standing in the society or the kind of parents they would make, to even think of breeding and bringing more children of their own kind to this world. The very nihilistic, cynical and unabashedly frank daughter of Vladimir, Katya, even seems to befriend the old man after all, for she always portrays with all honesty that the only string attaching her to her father is that of monetary needs. And yet, somewhere in her arrogance, we at least see an integrity, unlike her old father, who seems to be all heart otherwise, but then doesn't think twice before leching at a comely young gym member, his daughter's age, working out as he sweats it out on a treadmill!

Not offering any ray of hope on the other side, is Elena's son Sergei, a lazy, jobless drunk, who cannot even afford his teenage son's education, yet wastes away his life and doesn't care about getting employed. Perhaps it is out of a sense of taking his stepfather for granted and that his financial needs would be taken care of anyway. How hypocritical of him then, that initially refused a grant of any sort, he calls Vladimir a tight-ass and later, when he ends up getting some sum of money after all, goes on to make a toast to the old man, and decides to name his unborn son after him! 

It is a two-faced world all the way, and one wonders if it is the socio-economic environment as depicted in the film, that has created such an indifferent, inhuman atmosphere. In an almost Claude Chabrol-esque finesse, Zvyagintsev reveals the inherent class conflict, be it in terms of mentality or in terms of lifestyle. Despite all the awesomely colourful and crisp cinematography by Mikhail Krichman, we see a distinction between classes that takes almost black and white extremes! Vladimir's home is a dream house, with all the works of luxuries, while Sergei's place is a crummy, shabby old neighbourhood run down apartment, that can barely contain two, let alone, his upcoming family of five!

Symbolic images like the birds and two smoking chimneys flanking one non-smoking one clearly drive home the gist of the story of a dying old man and the two most important but headstrong women in his life, his new wife and his ungrateful daughter, both wanting a piece of the man's dough! An excellent musical score composed by Philip Glass makes its welcome appearance at scenes that, on a normal basis build up to nothing significant event-wise, but do serve to reflect an internal angst or sentiment of a character in that very moment. 

These instances and the brilliantly written pieces of tense drama are accentuated by the marvelous performances by an all round talented cast. Andrey Smirnov is spectacular as the old man, confident at one point and well aware of his mortality on the other side of an illness, displaying an eerie genuineness to his ailing self. Surpassing Smirnov is the astonishingly natural Nadezhda Markina in her portrayal of the complex, eponymous Elena. This is a performance for the ages, and coming from an actor who makes her debut on the big screen here after graduating from the small screen. Emerging strong in supporting acts are Elena Lyadova as the compulsively rude Katya and Aleksey Rozin as her beer-guzzling stepbrother. 

A film like "Elena" is a sheer delight for every cinephile hungry for some tense, brilliantly acted, edgy, morally complex films that don't have to try too hard to establish that they are a work of true genius. It would be a crime to miss this film.

Score: 9/10

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