A version of this review appeared in The Age, June 23, 2012.
The new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev begins with a striking, pregnant image: a bird perched on a bare tree at dawn, just outside a Moscow apartment block. As the sun rises, the camera holds for a long moment – and eventually, a second bird flutters into shot. Indoors, a middle-aged woman later identified as Elena (Nadezhda Markina) pulls on a nightgown and sits on an ottoman in front of her bedroom mirror. She rubs her eyes, looks briefly puzzled, then turns her head almost flirtatiously, as if to confirm that she's still the same person as before.
While she goes about her routines – preparing breakfast, waking up her husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) – light filters through the curtains and gleams from every surface of the modernist, open-plan apartment, neat and spotless in a way that speaks of constant, tireless labour. Shot by Zvyaginsev's regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman – who also worked on the recent, gorgeous-looking Silent Souls – the images seem to sanctify Elena's mundane tasks, transforming them into rituals of devotion.
A former nurse, Elena is the second wife of the elderly Vladimir, who first met her a decade earlier during a stay in hospital. It's a functional if unequal partnership, where she serves him as carer and housekeeper as well as lover. Their main quarrels are over their respective adult children: Katya (Elena Lyadova), Vladimir's cynical daughter, and Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), Elena's unemployed dolt of a son, who lives with his equally wretched family in a less salubrious apartment opposite a nuclear power plant on the other side of town. Using his mother as a go-between, Sergey regularly begs for handouts from his wealthy stepfather; when Vladimir refuses to provide beyond a certain point, Elena has to decide where her ultimate loyalties lie.
Zvyaginsev is a talented filmmaker and this is his best film yet, less mired in vague allegory than The Return (2003) or The Banishment (2007). For all his self-conscious austerity he has become a impressively suave storyteller, with a novelist's command of detail and a deft way of shifting between perspectives while keeping us guessing about his characters' motives. Indeed, the longer we look at Elena's sublimely ordinary face, the harder it is to know what lies beneath. Tenderness? Resignation? Suppressed rage? Significantly, she's the only character who shows any trace of a religious impulse, though when she enters a church she seems uncertain how to pray; gazing up at an icon preserved behind glass, she's confronted yet again by her own reflection.
Though technically a crime story, Elena is only marginally a thriller (Philip Glass' string-heavy score telegraphs “suspense” in a deliberately repetitive, unmodulated way). Rather, the film demands to be interpreted as a report on the condition of modern Russia, where the rich and the poor are separate nations and only a few ambassadors, like Elena, are licensed to travel back and forth. Politically speaking, Zvyagintsev and his writer Oleg Negin don't play favorites, ensuring that no-one wins our easy sympathy; the plot has a neat cruelty that recalls Michael Haneke, especially in one bleakly absurd sequence near the end. Also reminiscent of Haneke is an underlying puritanism especially evident in the view of popular media: TV is a mindlessly chattering presence in the homes of Elena and Sergey alike, while another character's fondness for violent video games is understood as a further symptom of social collapse.
Yet the tone remains very different from Haneke's schoolmasterly chill. Again, this has to do with Zvyaginsev's lyricism, his awareness of the mysterious beauty in all things, even the smoke that billows from the nuclear cooling towers at sunset. Though the natural world seems deep in autumnal decay, we know that in spring the leaves will be green once more; moral desolation is balanced by a grudging respect for life's incredible persistence, its desire to renew itself at any price.