Saturday, June 2, 2012

caretaker of a rotten seed

Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev's Elena hits hard, with its complicated and stark depiction of the have-nots and the have-a lots and its dark depiction of human behavior.  The title character (Nadezhda Markina, in a subtly wrenching performance) is a former nurse, in a passionless marriage with a wealthy, aging former patient Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov).  In Vladimir's cold, spacious dwelling, the couple sleep in separate rooms, watch separate TVs.  Elena's existence is servant-like. Meanwhile, Elena's son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family live a bus and a long train ride away in a run-down, cramped apartment, with a harsh view of nuclear reactors. Mystified at why Vladimir continues to financially support his estranged daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova, who makes a striking impact in a small role) while her side of the family struggles, Elena tries to convince Vladimir to pay for Sergey's teenage son's college education.  Vladimir is reluctant however to give them any money, incensed that Sergey can't provide for his family.

This is a quiet film but has excellent, unnerving sound design that mines the cacophony of Elena's everyday: the caw of blackbirds, an electric razor, a violent video game, a dripping coffee maker, the horn of a passing train, and snippets of terrible TV dialogue made surrealistic.   Philip Glass's grim, driving score appears in sudden bursts and adds an element of energy and intensity to this slowly-unfolding story. Zvyagintsev's (The Return) direction and Mikhail Krichman's cinematography (the gorgeous widescreen shots lit by the movements of sun and clouds are something to behold) cast a spell and make Elena's desperation and guilt almost palpable.  Sometimes the camera drifts into unexpected scenes that come back later in a sudden punch.  Because of Zvyagintsev's well-orchestrated scenes, I wasn't sure if all of the subtle contrasting images were intentional (a pot simmering while one of the reactors can be glimpsed out the window; the immaculate blue-gray horizontal tiles of Vladimir's kitchen backsplash and the grimy graffitied ones of Sergey's apartment; the burning candle for St. Nicholas and the burning of papers) but I found his visions more complicated than mawkishly tidy. Katerina describes her family as one of "subhuman" "rotten seeds."  It's a familiar story of wealth and the circumstances of birth but made haunting and unforgettable in the hands of the cast and crew and Zvyagintsev. ****

-Jeffery Berg

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