Watching Elena, the third feature from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, could very well inspire confusion as to how the film expects the viewer to react to any of the given characters or their situations. There's no lack of reaction to what occurs, and yet the struggle to find a balance or establish a viewpoint can become almost frustrating. What is Zvyagintsev trying to do here? Are we supposed to take a side? If so, which side? Do any of these people register as sympathetic? Is it simply a portrayal of modern class struggles both in Russia and elsewhere? Questions, including far more than these, can abound. What we get few of are answers. In the interview included on the disc being discussed here, the director even comments that the title character's journey presumably continues after the end credits, meaning that our little visit to her life is a mere snapshot.
For a filmmaker as capable as Zvyagintsev, the relative ambiguity is just fine. He gives the film a degree of suspense which it might not necessarily even deserve. There's little, plot-wise, to require any sense of unease. And, yet, it often feels like a thriller in mood. Philip Glass contributes a score which quickly becomes unsettling most every time it's heard. Those who've seen Zvyagintsev's debut The Return, a masterpiece by most any standard, might not be surprised at how deftly he introduces tension in Elena, regardless of how closely the mood fits the action. It's actually an artful bit of misdirection, as the film carries with it only an artificial sense of worry. When presented with hindsight, there proves to be little or no significant cause for that kind of heightened stress, perhaps because the emotional investment in the characters remains at a minimum.
Rattling off elements of Elena's plot doesn't prove particularly helpful. There are, additionally, concerns of spoilers. If we must provide a kind of minimal framework as to what is going on in the film, be content knowing that the titular Elena (a plain and persuasive Nadezhda Markina) is wife and caretaker to the wealthy Vladimir. Her son from a previous relationship has a wife and two children of his own, which he cannot adequately provide for and must depend heavily on Elena's frequent contributions. Vladimir disagrees with this supporting of apparently capable adults but has his own wild and irresponsible daughter. Things become complicated when Elena wishes for Vladimir to give her money which would allow her grandchild to attend college rather than have to join the military. A heart attack, and its consequences, further muddies the waters.
The thing that particularly bleeds into Elena is a sense of how varied the represented classes are. While the film is set in Moscow, its message is felt far and wide. The relative upper crust is portrayed, in the form of Vladimir, as being cold and somewhat uncharitable. His daughter is seemingly no more self-sufficient than Elena's son and his family, yet her background yields much different rewards. It can be difficult, too, to really begrudge Vladimir his doting when it's his money being considered. The only real argument against, other than a social one, might be to what degree his wealth is truly helpful to her. The fact that we're dealing with a formerly communist country also tends to color things a bit. If capitalism supports the sort of financial success attained by Vladimir, then it would also seem to allow for him to distribute his good fortune as he sees fit.
The most likely takeaway from Elena emerges as something in the key of no easy answers for our constant class struggle. Maybe the film simplifies the situation a bit much by having Elena's son be a layabout more concerned with finding beer in the fridge than steady employment but surely these sorts of people exist. In truth, none of the main characters are shown doing anything really resembling work. The argument of opportunity thus remains as vital as ever. What's really striking about Elena, though, is how Zvyagintsev injects almost total unease from start to finish for a film which disturbs in its wake more than it ever thrills. There's very little here worthy of the mood created but it's completely irrelevant. Having the threat of something terrible so often is enough, particularly since something terrible actually does occur, in its own way, repeatedly.
In advance of the eventual UK release of the film, Zeitgeist is bringing Elena out on DVD in the U.S. The R1 edition is worth a look considering the quality of the picture and how it's being presented. The disc is dual-layered, with a robust bitrate.
The film is shown in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for widescreen displays. It looks rather good here, exhibiting solid detail and sharpness. There are no signs of damage and noise is at a minimum. Colors and skintones appear natural, though the overall palette prominently uses teal. One real complaint is the interlacing present in the transfer, indicating it's non-progressive. This can, potentially, result in visible combing on some displays.
Two audio options, both in Russian, give the viewer a choice between 5.1 and 2.0 stereo tracks. The differences are not dramatic but Philip Glass' mood-setting score does register more strongly when utilizing the rear channels. The mix on the whole is an impressive one. This is a film which opens to several minutes absent any dialogue so we're almost forced to cling to the various noises and sounds somewhat more prominently than we might otherwise. Subtitles are provided in English and are optional. They're white in color.
Extra features on the disc are highlighted by a lengthy interview (32:42) with director Andrey Zvyagintsev. The half-hour piece doesn't necessarily unlock the movie to any significant extent but it does allow the viewer to better see some of Zvyagintsev's aims and interests. There's also a neat video (2:39) on the screenprinting of the Elena poster, which was designed by artist Sam Smith for Zeitgeist. Aside from how striking the poster design is, seeing the printing process is itself fascinating.
The film's U.S. theatrical trailer (1:42) is included here as well. The interior of the cover art provides film and disc credits.