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Elena (2012)
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by Jay Seaver

"Exquisitely crafted, and would be more so if things played out."
3 stars

There's a certain type of story that appears in magazines devoted to mystery and suspense which doesn't really present much of either, but instead strips all the plot away and focuses tightly on what the pressures on one character are. They're usually rather short - the writers do that one thing and get out. "Elena" is sort of like those stories, but drawn out to feature length and not quite compensating for the lack of a narrator with its excellent craft.

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) live in a fancy apartment in Moscow, each on their second marriage, and each with a child from the first. For Elena, it's Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), who lives on the outskirts of the city with his wife and sons; Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) spends her father's money but doesn't talk to him much. Elena would like Vladimir to pay her grandson Sasha's college tuition; he doesn't feel any sort of obligation.

Though Elena was originally conceived as a London-set, English-language feature made for an international audience, it's very tempting and natural for an American viewer to read it as commentary on today's Russia. And, to a certain extent, he probably should, even if that's not completely the filmmakers' intent; even if writer Oleg Negin and director Andrei Zvyagintsev mean to create something universal, they're doing it with the haves and have-nots of a very specific place and time. The blunt cynicism frequently on display is a Russian tradition, although the particular class divisions on display a generation after the fall of communism have parallels in many other places.

On the other hand, some of this likely just comes from Zvyagintsev and company presenting things at such a languorous pace and particular remove that the audience figures that there must be more going on than appears on the surface and starts looking for meaning, even if what it infers is not necessarily what the filmmakers meant to imply. That's actually a fairly satisfying experience for the first half of the movie or so; there almost certainly is meaning in the distance Elena travels to visit her family, or how Sergei and Sasha take Elena's generosity for granted in exactly the same way. The timing and manner of Vladimir requesting another cup of coffee from Elena says a ton about their relationship. Every scene is so precisely constructed and pointed with so little to distract the audience from what every motion is saying that it must be deliberate - right?

After a while, though, it starts to become tiresome - there aren't a whole lot of plot-advancing events, but once they start happening, it would be nice if there were a few more of them, in somewhat quicker succession. With what feel like fewer new insights to be gleaned, what was fascinating before soon seems belabored. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman's camera work remains impressive, but Zvyagintsev seems to draw scenes out, seemingly convinced we need to see every detail in real-time.

It's all shot beautifully, and acted nearly as well. Nadezhda Markina is astonishingly good here, blending in with the environment seamlessly and letting her conflicting sides contrast perfectly: She's clearly more at home with her family than with her husband, but that doesn't leave her oblivious to how she's treated; there's affection and tension in equal measures when playing against Andrey Smirnov's Vladimir. And while Smirnov does certainly play Vladimir as a bit of a bastard, he's a human and occasionally multifaceted one. His scenes with Elena Lyadova are intriguing, as she also makes an initially chilly character worth the audience's attention.

Unfortunately, by the time that happens, there's just not much time left in a movie that already feels longer than it is. It winds up being rather unfortunate that "Elena" never becomes a genre picture; a situation as well-observed as this one also deserves to be acted upon rather than just left to sit.

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originally posted: 06/05/12 10:40:42
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2012 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2012 Dallas International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Dallas International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival For more in the 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2010 Seattle International Film Festival For more in the 2012 Seattle International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Andrey Zvyagintsev

Written by
  Oleg Negin

  Yelena Lyadova
  Nadezhda Markina
  Aleksey Rozin
  Andrey Smirnov

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