Festival du Nouveau Cinéma: ‘Elena’ – Beware the Submissive Housewife

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Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Written by Oleg Negin

2011, Russia

In cinema it seems to take quite a lot of pluck to position an elderly couple as main protagonists. Thus the central duo in Elena, a curio of a film directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return) is refreshingly senior – demure and wrinkled – providing an antithesis to much of modern cinema with its stubborn oblivion of the existence of life past the age of looks.

Elena pulls off this “feat” with minimal dialogue or plot embellishment – the unadorned story of a seemingly dominated housewife, Elena, a retired nurse married to an elderly oligarch-type former patient. Intriguingly, Elena is as far removed from the Russian gold-digger stereotype as can be – a devoted mother to a feckless son from a previous marriage and grandmother to an inane teenager without the grades needed to gain university admission and eschew military service. While at home with Vladimir Elena patiently and unprotestingly fulfills the role of the maid-turned-spouse, within her son’s family she is a matriarchal provider holding the penurious family of Sergei together. As it turns out, Elena is anything but submissive, exuding quiet but dogged dignity and Vladimir does not quite fit the oligarch stereotype. In fact, it is precisely the companionship of the dowdy, motherly Elena that is his redeeming characteristic, rendering him less antipathetic than can be expected – he does not seem to return the flirtatious gaze of a much younger, more nubile female client in his gym.

Despite Elena’s humility and pride, however, there are mild insinuations of her having married Vladimir as a means of financial salvation for her blood family, and this is the pivotal plot device. Will the subservient wife from a lower socio-economic class remain loyal to her ‘master’-husband, or will she take the plunge of making the political personal by helping herself to some of her husband’s wealth?

The defining characteristic of Zvyagintsev’s film is that all of these conflicts are understated, sketched rather than enunciated. With scant dialogue, a lot of the tension is conveyed instead through the glaring juxtaposition between the social classes – the contrast between Vladimir’s theatrically posh apartment in an upscale neighbourhood and the dingy industrial suburb where Sergei lives is exacerbated by the lengthy journey Elena frequently undertakes between these two worlds.

The central strength of Elena lies in its unnerving ambiguity: we are never quite sure what to make of the characters – only when her husband is taken ill does the otherwise secular Elena venture into a church to ask for his recovery. The tentatively established good-bad character dynamic is skilfully undermined towards the end of the film, when the hitherto tight narrative with virtually no extraneous branching lurches into a jarring digression thrown in to destabilise expectations and imply that things may not be exactly what they seem on the surface. With Sergei’s expanding brood taking over the bourgeois apartment after Vladimir’s death, one cannot help wondering whether Elena really was after the money all the time. It seems that grey is the shade en vogue, while black and white are tenuous concepts in the morally ambiguous terrain of the Russia of the nouveau riche.

Zornitsa Staneva

The Festival Du Nouveau Cinéma – October 12 – 23 – Visit the official website

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