Andrey Zvyagintsev's film starts as a visually eloquent portrait of class divisions in post-Communist Russia. All the director needs to do is follow the title character on a long commute. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a middle-aged former nurse who married a former patient, a wealthy businessman. She still seems as much a nursemaid as a spouse to Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). She sleeps in a separate bed and rises ahead of him to draw his curtains and prod him awake. We'll see evidence later that the couple remains intimate and occasionally affectionate. But something stands between them: Elena's adult son Sergey (Alexey Rozin) and his family. The best sequence of the film traces Elena's long commute from Vladimir's spacious, modern home to Sergey's cramped apartment. Elena doesn't drive; for her there's a lot of walking and riding trains, and a stop at a grocery store, before she makes her way past a nuclear power plant to Sergey's home in the projects. Zvyagintsev directs with an empathy rare in modern film for modes of travel other than driving, and a keen eye for the geography of class. Living in the shadow of a nuclear plant is today's equivalent of the proverbial other side of the tracks. In her commute, Elena seems to cross from one world to another.
Sergey is unemployed, an apparent deadbeat. Married, he has a teenage son and a baby. The boy isn't promising. He may be Russian but you know the type. Apart from the occasional gangfight, he stays in his room and plays video games. Sometimes his dad will join him. If the boy can't get into college his only future is the military, a prospect Elena dreads. A scholarship isn't going to happen, and Sergey certainly can't afford to pay the boy's way. Vladimir can, but he can't understand why he should have to support Elena's people -- he didn't marry them. But he doesn't want to hurt Elena's feelings, either, so he says he'll think it over some more after initially refusing her. Then he goes and has a heart attack while swimming at his health club.
Vladimir's health crisis brings his own estranged child, a daughter, out of the woodwork. He's desperate to reconcile with her and is willing to make that a monetary transaction if necessary. While giving Elena a final refusal on subsidizing her grandson's education, he proposes to write a will giving most of his wealth to the daughter. That provokes Elena to take extreme measures....
That's the story, and you might be forgiven if, after memories of the impressive cinematography of Mikhail Krichman and the dependably ominous music of Phillip Glass fade, you find yourself wondering: is that it? In a way, I could argue that Elena is more realistic for doing without the melodramatic complications that usually follow this film's defining act. Zvyagintsev and screenwriter Oleg Negin clearly aspire to some damning portrait of pervasive ruthlessness in 21st century Russia. The constant background noise from TV is obviously meant to underscore this point -- a sports commentator observes that a sports coach is using "typical Soviet tactics" to push his team to the limit, for instance. But the obvious artistic ambition on display seems to demand that more happen in the picture than actually does, and Elena appears more pretentious in retrospect than it really should seem. Bringing in Glass to score the picture furthers that impression; using the arch-minimalist of modern music isn't exactly cinematic minimalism. The real problem may be that we don't see enough of Elena's two families to understand the choice she makes. We can see that the story's a kind of tragedy, but the presentation is perhaps too deadpan, too concerned with widescreen composition, for us to feel the tragedy enough, Markina's fine performance notwithstanding, for the social criticism to strike home. Maybe something's simply missing in translation. On the other hand, maybe my dissatisfaction with the ending was what the filmmakers intended: a blunt representation of Russia's constant injustice. That possibility allows me to recommend Elena despite my reservations. The film has a lot going for it in any event. Whatever it wants to say about Russia, its issues are really pretty easily recognizable no matter where you watch it.