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ELENA

STYLE OVER SUBSTANCE?

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By Daniel Lammin
21st June 2012
Sometimes, no matter how ‘pretty’ a film is, that isn’t enough to make it enjoyable. The cinematography may be accomplished, the editing may be clever, but if the arc isn’t strong, whether thematic or narrative, that simply isn’t enough. This issue seems to be one that plagues European cinema. “If we make it look nice, and include a lot of very long takes of absolutely nothing for no reason whatsoever, then that should be enough to make it Art, right?” The opening shot of ‘Elena’, the new film from acclaimed Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev, begins with just such a shot, suggesting we might have another such film on our hands. Is it ‘artistic for artistic sake’, or does it have something to say?

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) lives with her new husband, the very well-off Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). The elderly sleep in separate beds, and she remains home and keeps his house in order, never with complaint. She’s a devoted wife, and mother to her no-hoper son Sergey (Aleksey Rozin). Feeling pressure from all sides of her family, Elena tries to keep the peace and stop her world from imploding around her.

ELENA - TRAILER

Zvyagintsev made a major impression with ‘The Return’ in 2003, making ‘Elena’ an international event. There is no doubt about his talents as a director. ‘Elena’ is a beautiful-looking film, with lush cinematography and terrific use of colour and production design. The screenplay is sparse and economical, the performances are generally excellent, and a new score from composer Philip Glass is always something to look forward to. Morse the pity, then, that ‘Elena’ is generally forgettable. There’s no impression at the end of why you were asked to watch this poor woman stumble through her difficult life, and face the considerable trials that are placed in front of her. Plot points often land as predictable and melodramatic, and many threads are never followed through, resulting in a film devoid of any sense of resolution. There is a cold detachment to the film, and while this might work with more engaging material, this film just doesn’t offer enough to make ‘sitting back and observing’ enough to satisfy at the end of the day.

What makes this even more frustrating is that Nadezhda Markina is absolutely terrific as Elena. The film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it beautifully. There is a calm sadness to her, and when she is on screen (which is most of the film), you can’t take your eyes off her. Markina gives a quiet, subtle performance that possesses the only glimmer of heart in the whole film. Elena is also the only sympathetic character, and without her, there would be no reason to engage with the film at all.

What makes this even more frustrating is that Nadezhda Markina is absolutely terrific as Elena. The film rests on her shoulders, and she carries it beautifully.

In the end, ‘Elena’ leaves you with nothing. This poor woman, tossed about and under-appreciated, replaces one prison sentence of a life for another. And after nearly two hours with this film, you’re left wondering what you were supposed to take away from that, other than the existential philosophy that life is hard and difficult, and good people never get the credit they deserve. It seems as if European cinema is finding this kind of statement pretty appealing at the moment, as so many films seem to be appearing with this kind of pessimistic philosophy, hidden behind technical prowess that just seems to be vying for a Silver Bear or a Palm D’Or. The argument may be that "this is a snapshot of real life", but that argument just doesn’t hold water anymore. I’m sure some people may find fulfilment in a film like ‘Elena’, with belief that because it is slow, has little dialogue, is pretty to look at and is in a foreign language must mean it is a work of art. Spending five minutes looking at a tree branch at the beginning of a film, though, isn’t my idea of art.

FAST FACTS
RELEASE DATE: 21/06/2012
RUN TIME: 1h 49m
CAST: Nadezhda Markina
Aleksey Rozin
Andrey Smirnov
Elena Lyadova
DIRECTOR: Andrey Zvyagintsev
PRODUCER: Alexander Rodnyansky
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