By in Movies & TV

Russian Film Elena Explores Darkness of Human Nature in All of Us

Last night, I attempted to watch 2012 Russian noir film, Elena, by Andrei Zvyagintsev. Do not confuse this with the 2014 release of the documentary of the same name by Petra Costa.

As I had seen neither, I thought I would start with Zvyagintsev's Elena, winner of the 2011 Cannes' Film Festival Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize. I found it at the library, and did not read reviews until after I watched it.

The main characters and background:

Husband and wife, Vladimir and Elena. They have been together for 10 years, but married for two (if I am correct in the details). They met when Elena was Vladimir's nurse when he had been hospitalized. He is a wealthy businessman; she no longer must work. They sleep in separate rooms, though Elena is the "dutiful" wife. Their biggest disagreements are in relationship to her giving money to her son, and Vladimir's refusal to help her son and his family without a commitment on the son's part to do for his family.

Sergey, Tatyana, and Sasha. Sergey is Elena's son, and an unemployed father of several, Sasha being the eldest. He is of age, and equally as hapless a character as his father, not driven enough to complete an education or join the Army. Tatyana is wife to Sergey and mother to Sasha and the rest of the brood, her role being primarily a baby-maker.

Katerina. Vladimir's daughter, estranged from her father. She cares most about her father, where money only is concerned.

Additional plot:

Vladimir is openly critical about Elena's free-loading son and family. Elena, as mother and grandmother, regularly gives money to them, that she hides from her husband. Vladimir suffers a sudden illness, and Elena complies with her husband's request to help facilitate the reunion with his daughter, Katerina. This serious illness and Katerina's return now threaten Elena's potential inheritance, and her love and obligation to Sergey and his family. A plan is devised, which challenges sensibility, legality, and her husband's wishes.

My review:

Elena was my first Russian film. I found it to be a very dark, slow-moving film, that was designed to draw you into the contradiction and complexity that is human nature. It was rather minimalist, leaving the viewer to analyze the reality, and to confront the inner conflict that all life encounters. The basic premise of the story, and the social challenges between the "haves" and "have nots," was a classic theme that was masterfully explored, this time in Moscow, Russia.

Because of the darkness of the plot, and the slowness in setting the scene and the strategy the director uses for its delivery, is not a film that I would suggest to view if you are either tired, stressed, or otherwise interested in mindless or high-action films.

As well, it is in Russian with English subtitles. For these reasons, I plan on watching it again, when I am more prepared to want to think and can pay better attention to a film that does not force-feed you ideas.

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See also:

NY Times Review of Elena

Coral's Review of The Lives of Others (Das Leben der Anderen)

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© Copyright 2015- Coral Levang - All Rights Reserved.

Coins: 5414, $8.12, 40%

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Image Credit » by niekverlaan

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JohnRoberts wrote on September 8, 2015, 7:29 AM

Russian films tend to be slow though post-Berlin wall films lack the propaganda aspect.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 7:36 AM

Have you watched a lot of Russian films? If so, which ones? This one certainly did not propagandize. It was classic challenge between social/financial class and the belief systems by which they live and choose.

msiduri wrote on September 8, 2015, 7:43 AM

This sounds like something that would be interesting to watch if you could give your full attention to it. Thanks for such a full write up of it.

Rufuszen wrote on September 8, 2015, 8:10 AM

The only Russian film I've seen was a Sci-Fi one whose name totally escapes me. I was planning to see NightWatch, a fantasy, but fell asleep!

JohnRoberts wrote on September 8, 2015, 8:50 AM

Only a few from way back when they still USSR. Eisenstein's Battleship Potemkin of course. Bondarchuck would be their best known filmmaker. He did Pushkin's Boris Godunov. Try Mikhalkov's Burnt by the Sun.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 8:59 AM

It is certainly not one to view lightly, msiduri

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 9:01 AM

Thanks for the recommendations.

markgraham wrote on September 8, 2015, 9:23 AM

This movie sounds interesting, but I like Russian literature, for example War and Peace; Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers' Karamovsoff and so on. Not sure of the spelling on the last word but it is close.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 9:49 AM

This is about "modern" Russia, but moreso about the problems being the classes, from an individual perspective.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 9:50 AM

I am not generally into Sci-Fi, nor Fantasy.

markgraham wrote on September 8, 2015, 10:25 AM

I am not really into present day Russian movies, as you said they are kind of dark. I like the Russian past.
The novels are very detailed, but I like that. I may try to review some of these past works.

Feisty56 wrote on September 8, 2015, 11:50 AM

I think the mere fact a film has subtitles adds a subtle bit of complexity and gravitas. You can't tune out from the watching of the film itself and listen only to the dialogue, requiring rapt attention.

inertia4 wrote on September 8, 2015, 12:15 PM

The plot sounds interesting. But reality is enough for me to bare. I also am no fan of subtitles. It takes away from the field that I am watching. I am always too busy reading the movie and not watching it.

LeaPea2417 wrote on September 8, 2015, 12:18 PM

I have not heard of this film. Did your rent it or view it on amazon or netflix?

alexdg1 wrote on September 8, 2015, 12:31 PM

As a movie buff and reviewer, I've watched at least several hundred films across a wide spectrum of genres (ranging from family fare to adult films), but I'm not keen on Russian movies. The only one I sort of tolerate is Eisenstein's "The Battleship Potemkin," (Bronenosets Potyomkin), which I watched when I studied History of Russia a lifetime ago. I'm sure that many post-Soviet films are not propaganda pieces as "Potemkin" surely was, but other than Russian classical music, I don't favor the culture much.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 1:49 PM

This has little to do with Russia, and more about people.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 1:52 PM

I agree. In this particular film, it was not until about six minutes into it, the very first words were uttered. ("Get up" was the subtitle.) It was a few more minutes before there was dialogue between the two characters.

I will try to watch this again, after I watch an old Meryl Streep movie I found and had never heard of. LOL

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 1:55 PM

I don't mind subtitles, and this one was minimalist enough that you don't miss too much ... which lends enough to the slow-moving aspect of the development of watching the behavior of characters. It is as if they are drawing you into the character's thoughts without telling you what they are thinking. It was unlike any movie I have ever seen.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 1:56 PM

I found it at my local library.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 1:58 PM

You actually might find this one interesting. There really was not much reference to Russian culture. It could have taken place anywhere, but you will see the dilemma between the haves and have nots, not unlike in any culture or family.

Feisty56 wrote on September 8, 2015, 2:13 PM

Shoot, by six minutes in I might have thought the video/DVD had something wrong with it. That's quite a long introduction without words.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 2:49 PM

I agreed. I thought it was, as there was nothing. It was one of the strangest I've seen, but considering it is from Cannes' Festival, I figured that the director had a particular purpose for doing so. I think I've been shown I'm not so artsy-fartsy after all. LOL

Kasman wrote on September 8, 2015, 3:46 PM

Not really into movies with subtitles. Guess I'll wait until the English-language version comes out. Having said that, I have watched the Japanese movie The Seven Samurai (which the western The Magnificent Seven was based on). It was four hours long, in black & white and in Japanese with English subtitles - and I thoroughly enjoyed it. But that was the exception. I am mainly into SF

Last Edited: September 8, 2015, 3:47 PM

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 4:15 PM

You will probably wait for your lifetime. LOL

Four hours? Ugh ! You are a better man than I. emoticon :winking:

inertia4 wrote on September 8, 2015, 4:20 PM

I have seen my share of foreign movies. Some are good and some just suck. But this one sounds interesting.

cmoneyspinner wrote on September 8, 2015, 4:56 PM

Thanks fore this. Always on the look out for foreign films.

CoralLevang wrote on September 8, 2015, 5:08 PM

Check out the other I mentioned at the end, too, cmoneyspinner ... It's German. Much more action-packed though.

cmoneyspinner wrote on September 9, 2015, 5:11 PM


allen0187 wrote on September 14, 2015, 12:27 AM

I love foreign films but looking at the review, I'll most likely pass off on this one.