Having recently read David Bordwell’s How To Watch an Art Movie, Elena leapt of the screen as a prime example of a carefully constructed art film without a wasted shot. Even shots of minor characters doing things like making a hospital bed remind viewers of earlier scenes and bridge the gap between economic classes where a more literal or straightforward shot wouldn’t do.
- US Trailer
- Interview with director (30 mins.)
- Making of screen print poster (3 mins.)
The movie begins and ends on exactly the same shot — a tree in front of the balcony of a house with a nice view. In the first shot, the tree belongs to a jackdaw, but at the end of the shot another bird moves in.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is married to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). When we first meet her, she tells her husband that she is going to visit Sergei. More scenes slowly reveal that Sergei (Aleksey Rozin) is her son, and he and his wife have children, including an infant grandchild to Elena. Elena looks after this brood on her own; her husband is obviously a second husband with a family and indeed an economic class of his own. Their impeccably tasteful house clearly comes from his money and not hers.
The central question of the film is how, or if, these two family will ever blend. Will the second bird displace the first, or can they share the tree? We eventually get to meet Vladimir’s daughter, and she’s a good kid, a little aimless in her early 20s, but not a bad person. But her father and stepmother think she’s a hedonist. Is she any more deserving of Vladimir’s money than Elena’s son and his family? Elena’s son is not a hedonist, but he’s lazy and unemployed; he stays home and plays video games with his teenaged son who is rebellious and aimless. Maybe nobody “deserves” Vladimir’s money.
In the meantime Elena is very careful to keep her money separate from Vladimir’s. She collects her pension as cash and gives it to Sergei and his family, in part to help keep the teenaged Sasha out of the army. When she buys groceries, she buys from a credit card, with a different source of money.
There is more to the plot, but Elena is structured such that every scene reveals something about either the characters or the plot, so I won’t say too much more. The pace is fairly slow, so those of you with a low tolerance for subtlety and engagement, give Elena a pass. For anyone else, I strongly recommend Elena. If you’re on the fence, read the Bordwell blog and then decide whether you’re willing to play along with a film that reveals itself shot by shot.
There are three extra features on the Zeitgeist DVD. A U.S. theatrical trailer makes the film look more exciting and faster-paced than it is. There is a 3-minute feature on the production of the screenprint poster for the film.
Finally, there is a 30-minute interview with director Andrey Zvyagintsev. The interview ranges from the practical to the political. Zvyagintsev talks about finding the right ending — the first script ended sooner than the finished film, and it kept getting extended until it felt right. He also tells international viewers that Russia is still very patriarchal, a reality reflected in the film. The film was shot on a sound stage for practical reasons, but Elena’s son’s apartment was built to the same “rabbit cage” dimensions seen in Soviet-era architecture. I can’t let pass Zvyagintsev’s mention of seeing Obama and his advisors “watching” the Osama raid (I don’t think the White House had live video, did they?), and being incredulous that they were so callously watching a murder. I don’t think most Americans would have framed their reaction quite the same way, so it’s interesting (though not directly relevant to Elena) to hear a Russian filmmaker’s take on America’s role in world politics.