We never learn how Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) made his money, but we know, from the outset, that he has a great deal of it. Andrey Zvyagintsev’s third feature, Elena, opens as the title character (Nadezhda Markina), Vladimir’s second wife, wakes her husband and readies breakfast, the camera fluidly describing the well-appointed space. The layout of the whole apartment, with its sliding doors and separate bedrooms, manifests the arrangement between the younger Elena, a former nurse, and boomer equivalent Vladimir, who flips between latter-day Bob Dylan and opera-classical in his Audi while en route to the gym. The grasping-public reality TV periodically on in the background provides a national context for this transactional relationship.
Both spouses have children from previous marriages. Early on, Elena treks out to the suburban housing block where her son, Sergey (Alexey Rozin), lives with his family, handing off groceries and a wad of cash upon arrival; Vladimir’s mostly estranged daughter, tempestuous nihilist-hedonist Katerina (Elena Lyadova), shows up reluctantly after a heart attack lands her father in the hospital. Piping in a tasteful amount of the Philip Glass score at intervals, Zvyagintsev sets in motion a noirish inheritance plot.
The director—whose first two films, The Return (2003, terrific) and The Banishment (2007, not released stateside), drew Tarkovsky comparisons, recently including their own footnote toward the end of Geoff Dyer’s marathon Stalker recap, Zona—slides into the role of the contemporary-life anatomist here, showing the rottenness of an increasingly wealth-stratified society. As such, the rigorously composed Elena bears some resemblance to the grubbier motherland invective that has, in recent years, been imported from Russia for the American audience.
The film’s elders take pains to disguise their corrupt values, while the younger generation makes no effort whatsoever to hide its inborn avarice. Partly as a result of Katya’s harder-to-read fury (and Lyadova’s evident relish in conveying it), Zvyagintsev reserves most of his antipathy for beer-bellied Sergey and his parasitic clan, who messily devour potato chips as they sit around awaiting their next cash infusion. You can’t help but think that with slightly more humanized representatives of the underclass, this film might’ve really been something.
Opens May 16 at Film Forum