Andrey Zvyagintsev is the most internationally-acclaimed Russian filmmaker to emerge during the Putin era, and his expertly directed third feature “Elena” is, albeit oblique, the most vivid evocation I’ve seen of Moscow’s contemporary society.
As with the 48-year-old director’s previous movies, “Elena” — which is currently at Film Forum in New York, opens later this month in Los Angeles and after that, the Bay Area — is a story about parenthood. “The Return,” which came out of nowhere to win the Gold Lion at the 2004 Venice Film Festival, was an old school, highly-crafted East European allegory with both psychological and political resonance: After an absence of 12 years, the father of two adolescent boys materializes in the home of their pretty blonde mother and, by way of getting acquainted, insists on taking his confused sons on an exceedingly tough-love fishing trip. “The Banishment,” a major disappointment when shown in competition at Cannes in 2007, also involved a father’s return to his family after a dozen years away, to find his wife pregnant by another man. Shifting the gender emphasis, “Elena” concerns the extreme to which its title character will go to protect her son.
Although no less studied than “The Return” or “The Banishment,” “Elena” is as much thriller as character study, compelling not only for the situation it maps but the social milieu that it depicts. The middle-aged protagonist (classical actress Nadezhda Markina), a stolid, stately, plain-faced peasant type, is a nurse who married the elderly, though still vital, business tycoon who had been her patient. It’s an essentially feudal arrangement: Elena looks after Vladimir (veteran director Andrey Smirnov) and shares his bed in their sleek spacious apartment. They are respectful and not unaffectionate. He coddles his diffident, if not hostile, playgirl daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova); she uses her pension to support her loutish son Sergey (Alexey Rozin). Each loathes the other’s kid. Elena cannot understand why Vladimir will indulge his own unappreciative child and deny hers any assistance. Vladimir wonders why he should be obliged to subsidize Elena’s deadbeat offspring.
Class distinctions are a given: No only was Elena born to serve but, in visiting Sergey and family, her journey out from the posh new neighborhood where she and Vladimir live is a trip back in time, accompanied by a burst of Philip Glass (whose restrained score is his most effective in years). First seen smoking and idly spitting off the terrace of his crummy, cramped housing project flat, Sergey is a feckless citizen of the old Russia — and Vladimir is no socialist. Elena may be a beast of burden but she is also what Sarah Palin would call a “Mama Grizzly.” The situation becomes critical once Vladimir suffers a heart attack in his health club pool and begins working on a will.
“Elena” is leisurely but not overlong. Zvagintsev measures out his revelations in coolly observed gestures and seemingly empty moments. The key scene in which Katerina visits Vladimir in the hospital (and amuses him by describing their shared nihilism) is post-scripted with a lengthy, seemingly superfluous shot of a nurse — Elena’s successor — making his bed and sanitizing his room. Who will clean up after Elena? The movie grows ever more emotionally complex. Beginning with the image of a dead horse that Elena spots from a train and ending with a shot of an unattended infant, the final scenes seem to spring from her guilty conscience. Largely unremarkable in themselves, the revelation of an unexpected pregnancy, the experience of a routine power failure, an instance of casual teenage brutality, and the sight of a family gathering before the TV are cumulatively disturbing.
Zvagintsev has mapped out a world ruled by ingratitude and the absence of justice. None of his characters are particularly likeable — and only Elena seems capable of disinterested action. That her selflessness is also a heinous crime gives the movie its Hitchcockian aspect: Who do we spectators root for? What is it that we want to happen?