Those currently touting The Dark Knight Rises as a simple smackdown of Occupy Wall Street and a paean to the kindly rich ought to steer clear of Russian filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Elena, which offers another easy chance for reductive misreading—and along similar lines. The director himself has encouraged that: in an interview, he confessed to nearly calling the film The Invasion of the Barbarians in reference to the lower-class characters whose fates wind up tied to an aging wealthy businessman. Look out, richies, because the poor will gladly take your shit, Elena could be read as saying. And as with the new Batman movie, interpreting that as the takeaway involves ignoring a lot of nuances that add up to a complex—or in Dark Knight’s case, muddled—whole.
Zvyagintsev wound up going with the more enigmatic title Elena, named for the character played by Nadezhda Markina. A former nurse, Elena is married to the wealthy Vladimir while staying connected to her son and his family. This involves a hellish commute from Vladimir’s provincial, moneyed digs to the smoke stack-and-debris-strewn purgatory of their Soviet Bloc housing unit. Elena’s grandson Sasha (Igor Orgustov) is a video game-addicted layabout whose grades are so bad, he will be shuffled into a mandatory army stint. Elena expects Vladimir to bribe officials; the ailing Vladimir, largely confined to a bed but periodically capable of eloquently stubborn anger, believes the army will do Sasha good.
It’s here that Elena turns into the art film equivalent of a film noir, with Elena hatching an unthinkable scheme to save her blood family. Zvyagintsev’s first films (including The Return) were consciously indebted to Andrei Tarkovsky, and though the locations have now shifted largely indoors—save a terrifying gangland melee, its violence obscured by encroaching dusk—he retains the “master shot” rigor. Elena’s big spoiler-y act is given the proper moral weight of heavy long-take filmmaking, with shots that force one to empathize with a character who will spend the remainder of her life burdened by guilt. Zvyagintsev has no interest in humanizing her family, who stay one-note horrible throughout, but it’s clear his disdain is Russia-specific, not for the rest of the world’s 99-percenters. Elena is didactic, but like the best didactic filmmaking, it functions even better as classical moral drama.
As a first-time director, Daniel Auteuil, who also plays the well-digger Pascal, doesn’t yet have the chops he has as an actor.