Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
2011, Russia, 109 minutes
The opening shot of Elena is so atypical, director Andrey Zvyagintsev jokes, that some audiences think the film has run into technical issues and begin looking to the projectionist fix the problem. There aren’t any. The scene—which is three minutes of gentle wind, branches, birds, and sunrise outside an apartment window—establishes the glacial pace and committed realism of the film. This is the sort of thing that precludes broad appeal, but it also makes the film special for audiences looking for something bold.
Elena is an exercise in hyperrealism. The reason the pace is glacial (forgive me, but ‘glacial’ is the only synonym for ‘slow’ that will do, in part because of the severity of the word but also because the film does not plod, dawdle, or move leisurely; Elena’s slowness is at once deliberate and economical) is because Zvyagintsev’s camera is obsessed with capturing the minutiae of life. The film begins with a routine morning in the life of Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Valdimir (Andrey Smirnov), and the simple details of this routine—Elena dressing, Valdimir reluctantly waking up, the two chatting over breakfast—reveal their entire marriage.
The plot is straightforward and doesn’t spare time for quick reversals, minor triumphs, and subplot. In many ways, the script is similar to a short story in the same way that most films are similar to a novel: it doggedly pursues a single theme and eschews an elaborate plot. It is also purposely bereft of twists and fickle gambles. The characters do not surprise us, but they are not meant to be surprising; the audience knows what will happen to characters long before the characters themselves know.
Elena won a special prize from the Un Certain Regard jury at Cannes, which which runs parallel to the competition for the Palme d’Or. As indicators of particular type of quality, the special prizes are defiantly attuned. The jury’s selections lack broad appeal, but they are innovative and daring. Elena is certainly those things. Zvyagintsev’s film won’t find a large audience, but it will find an appreciative one.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs from September 8th to the 18th. Tickets, schedules, and other information can be found on the festival’s website.