Elena – at the ICA

Last night I took advantage of the ICA’s £6 Tuesday cinema screenings and went to see Elena – winner of the Special Jury Prize at Cannes 2011 – a Russian film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev.

Elena lives a bourgeois existence with her wealthy, older husband Vladimir. They met whilst she nursed him in hospital – 10 years earlier – and she left her unemployed son with his wife and two children in a ramshackle downtown tower-block to live with Vladimir.

She rises each morning and prepares Vladimir’s breakfast, wakes him up, makes his bed and packs his gym bag before he leaves. Elena appears closer to a carer, or servant, than a wife – and there’s an underlying feeling that as Vladimir has somehow saved her from her hardship – she should show her gratitude by waiting on him.

Dialogue is sparse – there are long, lingering shots of the apartment and Elena and Vladimir going about their mundane and seemingly depressing everyday life – until she takes the train downtown to visit her son. Elena appears more relaxed in the tower-block environment, taking off her shoes and coat, reaching out for her grandchild and sitting back as they drink tea around the kitchen table; a wide smile on her usually straight face.

But her son is putting pressure on her to persuade Vladimir to fund his older son’s college fees so that he won’t have to join the army.

Instead of asking her husband she writes a letter, which they then discuss over breakfast. Vladimir explains that he married her – not her family – and rudely infers that his money is his own and that her son should get off his arse and get a job to support his own family.

The conversation then turns to Vladimir’s only daughter – a ‘hedonist’ – who he continues to support financially. Elena feels it is unfair that he doesn’t treat her children like his own daughter. Vladimir berates her for speaking ill of his only daughter and abruptly ends the conversation.

Soon after he suffers a heart attack and decides it’s time to write a will. A heated discussion ensues – between Vladimir and Elena – about who will inherit his substantial wealth.

The film touches on difficult, and sometimes depressing issues – inheritance; and the lengths family members will go to secure their share, the tribulations that can arise from bringing two families together through second marriage, the difficulties arising from disparity of social class within a marriage, deprivation, giving money instead of love… but it touches on them lightly enough to not bring the audience down into too dark a place. It left me contemplating these issues without feeling too bleak.

The film is slow and beautifully shot – with only a couple of scenes picking up pace. It works very well as a brief outlook on Russian society, love, family – and where our priorities really lie.

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