An old maid turned millionaire's wife realizes that she's going to be denied her husband's inheritance and decides to do something about it in Elena, the 2011 winner of Cannes' Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize. Described as a Hitchcockian thriller but in reality a somber drama without a third act, Elena has a lot of good things going for it until it doesn't, begging the question: what's the point?
Elena, played deftly by Nadezhda Markina, and her husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), come from different backgrounds. A rich businessman with an estranged daughter, Vladimir is cold and disapproving of Elena's son and grandson, who live in relative poverty and show little interest in climbing out of their hole. After a sudden illness puts him in the hospital, Vladimir's daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) comes to visit him for the first time in years. On the spots he decides that he's going to leave his entire inheritance to her.
And then he tells his wife his plan.
For such a smart business, he is one dumb husband.
The allure of Elena is that the Russian character drama will turn into the "gripping, modern twist on the classic noir thriller" that it was marketed as. Well acted and superbly written, director and co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev makes the most of his characters and story at hand. Elena is nuanced and subtle in its approach, appearing to be boiling slowly toward something more.
That "more" never comes. Elena never turns into a thriller. It barely even shifts in that direction. The closest it comes to presenting conflict is a scene where Elena, Katerina and Vladimir's lawyer meet to discuss his will, and Katerina questions Elena's intentions. When challenged, Katerina gives up.
I read a few reviews that described Elena as assuming "a spiritual exhaustion American moviegoers may not share" (Boston Globe) and that it "suggests that in this quasi-feudal social environment, avarice and blood ties trump all other values." (The New York Times)
Okay... I suppose they're right, but am I supposed to care?
Yes, I am American, and yes, apparently, Elena is too spiritually exhausting for me. If only I were Russian! But when Elena ends without as much as indication she will face hardship as a result of her transgressions - either from external factors or her own [nonexistent] moral conundrum - the significance of the movie immediately fades into obscurity. Zvyagintsev ends the movie before the story is over, and that is the biggest crime of all.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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