Moral bankruptcy looms over Elena, a noir-ish Russian-language drama that screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, but director Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return) would have us withhold judgment of the dreary, compromised characters he presents.
In lengthy, often static shots, Zvyagintsev urges his audience to study every inch of the bleak urban landscape and the even bleaker people who inhabit it. What exactly we’re looking for, and why, largely depends on your taste for such art-house exercises.
Elena is quiet, sparely told and glacially paced, and not much really happens. And yet it manages to be absorbing, if only because you’re certain this has got to go somewhere.
At its center are an older husband and wife. Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is a wealthy businessman who appears to be pushing 70. His slightly younger spouse, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), used to be his nurse, and it quickly becomes evident that their relationship hasn’t evolved much past the patient-caretaker setup. In their sleek, modernday Moscow apartment, Elena dotes on Vladimir when she isn’t hitting him up to help out her son.
And therein lies the problem. Both have grown children from previous marriages. Vladimir’s daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), is a cynical hedonist to whom he rarely speaks; Elena’s son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), is a good for-nothing who whiles away his days drinking beer and playing video games. Residing in a dreary apartment building that appears to be a holdover from the Soviet era, Sergei and his wife mooch off the seemingly endless generosity of Elena, who in turn routinely begs Vladimir for loans he knows will never be repaid.
Things get dire when Sergei asks his mother for enough money to secure a spot for his thuggish 17-year-old son (Igor Ogurtsov) in a university and out of the army. Vladimir refuses, saying enough is enough.
But then he is hospitalized, and Vladimir’s turn in health suddenly puts Elena in a position of empowerment, weighing loyalties and considering unforeseen options.
A favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, Elena scratches at the chasm between haves and have-nots, and explores how money can form the connective tissue of family. But subtext doesn’t necessarily equal a compelling movie, and Elena, despite its icy stateliness, doesn’t match its pretensions.
Zvyagintsev is obviously a gifted filmmaker, and the production — from Mikhail Krichman’s exquisite lensing to Philip Glass’ sparingly used music score — is impeccable. If only the story had been a little messier.