The BBC’s description on iPlayer: “Drama in which a Moscow housewife and former nurse must take desperate measures to save an inheritance and solve all her family’s money worries.”
That is quite misleading and influences your perception of the film. Suffice to say I took quite a different reading of the narrative.
Elena (Russian: Елена) is a 2011 Russian drama film directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. It premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Special Jury Prize.
At the core of the film is the interaction, or lack thereof, between Elena, a former nurse, and Vladimir her husband who can afford to live in a ‘good’ apartment area due to his earnings but refuses to subsidise his in-laws despite Elena’s pleading. he has a daughter, Katya, from a previous marriage/relationship, who he hasn’t seen in a while, is unemployed, ‘turned out like her mother only interested in life’s pleasures. A goddamn hedonist’ and yet whom he dotes on so, its implied, she has a good standard of living with few if any responsibilities.
In contrast Elena,from a previous marriage or at least relationship, has a grown son named Sergei who lives in a much poorer area where there are gangs of young men and graffiti on the interior walls of the apartment building’s stairwells. His wife is named Tanya and the couple have two children. Sasha who is of school leaver’s age and faces the choice between the statutory armed forces enlistment (which is common in a few countries) or going to university which the family cannot afford. Elena often tells Vladimir that Sasha has health concerns and wants him to provide the money for the boy’s tuition costs. The is the central concern of the film as Vladimir refuses seeing the army as a good option. There is also a baby who I missed the name of but only seems to exit to reinforce the idea Sergei cannot afford to provide for his family as its yet another mouth to feed.
Here follow the notes I made while watching the film with a few additions. The important bits I will highlight. If you want the overall review just scroll further down. Nothing particularly humourous but, if like me, you want to know what happens in some films you will rarely find any reasonable synopsis on Wikipedia. So while this may seem cumbersome it’s probably one of the rare times you will see any significant account of the movie’s events. Go see the film for yourself as reading this doesn’t do the narrative justice and is just here in case you feel you missed something after viewing it.
The film begins by holding on a static image of outside the couple’s apartment for what seems like an eternity and a crow flies onto a branch. This holds far too long.
Elena dresses older than she seems. She is a grandmother though. This is how women in the mid twentieth century dressed not modern times.
Sergei’s son, Sasha, looks far older than he probably is. Hard life asking for money from your mother. (I’m not sure it’s ever mentioned he has a job throughout the film).
Sparse use of music throughout. This makes it more effective compared to the never-ending dirge you usually get in film scores. I’m reminded of the previews of Batman and Robin where they bragged about how there was only 5 minutes in the entire film where there wasn’t music.
(When someone points something like that out to you it becomes all-encompassing to the point other aspects get ignored. I don’t remember if the 5 minutes was during an important scene. I would assume so.)
Money concerns – will Sasha, the grandson, go to university or into the army? No one seems particularly bothered either way as they don’t mention making an effort to get the money for themselves or that they barely have enough money for basic amenities.
Elena and Vladimir sleep in separate bedrooms. he watches tv, she listens to another while doing small household tasks. Theme seems to be that everyone is living separate lives though everyone is in the same family. Here and at the end we over hear the television programme and perhaps its meant to offer a meta-narrative discussing the desire for self-improvement. Perhaps its being hinted Elena got involved with Vladimir because she thought it meant she would have a better life but, just like this aspiration programme, its empty promises and the reality is far more harsh.
She and Vladimir even use different mirrors. She uses a vanity table at the start when preparing for the day and he uses a bathroom one 24 minutes into the film.
Vladimir is the patriarch though doesn’t spend time with his in-laws i.e. Elena’s family. He calls Sergei her son so obviously never connected with them. Vladimir doesn’t want to pay for Sasha’s education and considers the army ‘the best school there is’. He sees Sergei as lazy for not being able, or perhaps willing, to provide for his own family. Nor does Vladimir care for Sasha’s health. He isn’t by blood their grandfather. He has a daughter and clearly doesn’t deny her anything. (We never even get the impression he has met Sergei or his family at all).
Vlad and Elena chat. She says she needs the money by the 20th. He says will give his answer in a week. There is a clear power divide between the two. Also as he uses the term ‘hedonist’ and she doesn’t understand the word so he is also implied to be far better educated than her. she does house cleaning. he will go to the gym. there is tension between them. is a blunt kind of person. no romance just grabs her wrist and says ‘come with me’ in order to initiate intimacy in the bedroom. Everything has its place. She giggles so it’s not against her will but certainly he clearly isn’t someone who takes no as an answer. Their home is a very sparse coldly designed apartment of stark edges etc very art deco but with pine and khaki tones. In contrast Sergei’s apartment is cramped and ‘make do’.
When leaving she gives Vladimir his bag but there is no thanks, good-bye or kiss. He just leaves and gets into his quite expensive looking German AUDI car. This is not a man lacking money. She is not so much a wife as an indentured slave it seems. He listens to classic music as he leaves the multi-story car park. Then changes it to soft rock. A moment later and he has to wait as a line of overall wearing workmen cross the road before him. A car honks behind him… then another long drawn out scene looking at him as he drives to what looks like a docklands area. Soft classical music in the background. It’s the afternoon already. He is at the gym. It seems very exclusive as it provides him with towels before he goes on a track machine. H checks out a young woman on another machine then goes to the water cooler and checks her out again before heading to the swimming pool. He is very isolated as the only person swimming. Yet another drawn out sequence of his swimming a length or two in silence. No one else is around to speak to. Suddenly he has a heart attack and is face down floating in the pool but the lifeguard is reading a magazine and doesn’t immediately notice.
Elena is giving money to someone for a delivery of groceries. she accesses the desk safe and puts documents in it before sorting out the groceries. The phone rings. She is told Vladimir is in hospital. We see a nurse having just finished attending to him as Elena enters. He coughs. He recounts it’s exactly how they met 10 years ago when she was a nurse and he had appendicitis. He wishes he could wake up back then. He jokingly says the girls at the hospital don’t look bad. The doctor and nurse arrive so Elena leaves. He asks her to call his daughter Katya. she does immediately. she tells her Vladimir wants to see her. Katya says not today, tomorrow. Elena wants to meet first though and so in the next scene they meet for coffee.
They meet in a cafe. Katya has a padded coat with her hood up and sunglasses on. She is clearly more well off that Elena or her family.
Elena addresses her as Katya while Katya greets her with ‘hello Elena Analtoievna which immediately shows the animosity she has towards Elena veiled as respect. It is the ‘proper’ way to address older people and was the common mode of address if you ever read the classics of Russian literature where everyone is addressed by their given and patronymic names except those who are close and use diminutives. Katya is indicating they are not familiar in her use of language while, by insisting on calling her Katya is trying to force familiarity. (It might not come across as blatantly obvious this is the situation but I thought the subtitles did a good job of indicating the relationship between them without deviating from the spoken dialogue). Elena tells her of the heart attack and that Vladimir is weak. Katya says dryly he has probably felt his way through all the nurses already. She seems unconcerned by her father’s ailment as it’s probably something that has occurred before. Elena asks her ro go easy on him. Katya begins to smoke after refusing the offer of anything to drink. She is not her for pleasure.
Elena says he needs love and asks Katya to show him that. Katya and Vladimir see each other rarely apparently though Elena doesn’t understand why but says it’s not her business. Katya agrees – its not her business.
Katya never calls him but Elena thinks she should. Katya feels Elena is blaming her, the prodigal daughter, for the lack of contact. Heart attack. Vladimir obviously was as intense with her as he has been with Elena. Katya accuses her of playing the worried wife and congratulates her on it sarcastically. Elena tells her she loves Vladimir. Katya doesn’t deny the relationship is no doubt ‘until death do they part’ but Elena is trying to cure him and by extension Katya. Katya says she doesn’t need Elena’s treatment ‘I am what I am’. She is like her father – unfailingly stubborn and self-assured. Elena asks if she is not sorry for her father, not at all? Though it maybe rhetorical Katya answers. ‘I dont give a flying fuck’. Elena thinks maybe it’s not such a good idea Katya see him today. She says maybe its best only when he is better. In spite Katya comments ‘then why not tell me only when he is better?’ then asks which room ‘papa’ is in.
Elena, in a sudden cut is at a church and the receptionist asks her to cover her head in the house of the lord. This is common practise in Eastern Orthodox churches of course so it is perhaps notable that Elena doesn’t do this automatically. Elena asks which saint she should light a candle in prayer to for her husband. A prayer for health she is told which the priest will pray for during the service and place a candle before saint Nicholas and the mother of God. she asks where those icons are. so clearly she is not a very religious person but is going through the motions… she goes to do it and prays making a sign of the cross. Is this truly out of desperation or is she playing the role of the good wife?
Back at the hospital what to me seems a pivotal scene occurs. If this scene was omitted then Elena would be unquestionably a protagonist but with this scene we question the morality we have seen her so earnestly ‘acting as the good wife’ Katya mocked her as.
Vlad is still in the bed with Katya having poured herself a drink and drained the glass. She has on a long white coat draped over her shoulders in the Mediterranean style like a catalogue model. She stands at the window seeming as though she is only here out of obligation.
Vlad says ‘[he] doesn’t see [her] much these days. She mocks that ‘[he] only saying this because [she] is stood by the window’. ‘Not in that sense’ he retorts. ‘There is no sense’ she rebutted. He mocks when he looks at her ‘maybe that is true’ and she replies ‘maybe then its a good thing [he] doesn’t see [her] so much then’. She goes to his bedside and tells him that she was ‘never his reason to live’. ‘And thank God as they say’ she adds sarcastically.
He tells her she is wrong but she adds that ‘money has always been [his] only reason for living’. He asks if she is ‘tallying up [his] life’ telling her ‘[money] is important to [her] too’. Though she denies it. He says ‘probably because [she] has never had to earn it [her]self’. ‘Maybe because [he] spoilt [her] she retorts giving her everything on a plate which he takes a s a compliment.
‘You know I love you, keep it coming’ she replies smiling/smirking. This is how they interact so it seems confrontational but is normal for them.
He ‘doesn’t know what [she] is making him pay for’. She mocks ‘[he] is priceless’. He ‘doesn’t know why [she] plays these word games’. “Games help children come to terms with the cruel laws of reality’ she says. Children is the word he picks up on. She says she isn’t pregnant. ‘Too bad’ he answers as it would ‘sort her out’. she says she is sorted – ‘alcohol and drugs only on the weekend. It’s clean living now’ although, she adds, she is ‘still getting sex and drugs under control… but im working on it, trust me’.
she unshoulders one side of the coat onto the chair she is sat on. he asks if she is smoking in the hospital. she asks ‘why, [he] paid for a big suite (private room) and does what [he] likes. he asks if she is serious so she takes the coat off and declares she will go to smoke where she is allowed. he asks her to hold on and asks where she got this [attitude] from?
“Genes, Dad, Heritage, A rotten seed. We’re all bad seeds. Subhuman.” he tells her to go have some babies as maybe they will turn out differently. She informs him ‘there is no such thing as different nor do[es she] feel like experimenting. its painful, expensive and pointless’. he tells her ‘everything with [her] is pointless’, and that, ‘those are stupid points to avoid that responsibility’. she tells him ‘it’s irresponsible to produce offspring who will be sick and doomed when the parents themselves are too. Doing it because everyone else does, because there is ‘some higher meaning’ to it all which is not ours to comprehend since we are just its executors. She indicates that by that logic ‘shit must be tasty as millions of flies can’t be wrong’. ‘And’, she adds, ‘in case [he] hadn’t heard the world might end soon’ mockingly.
he laughs and says ‘its strange but [he] feels better listening to her’. she tells him ‘that’s exactly why you breed – to suck the life from your children by asking questions like ‘where does this all come from”. he laughs. saying ‘[she] is a twit sometimes’. she smiles laughing and thanks him embarrassed slightly.
He tells her he loves her very much and offers her his hand which she asks if ‘we can do without’ but he insists. she mocks ‘what one won’t do for money’ they tease each other and he has her kiss him. they both smile embrace to kiss and are happy.
Critically here Katya has declared one of the aspects of Vladimir’s morality which he must have held in his earlier years but has set aside in old age. it feels as if she is mockingly quoting back to him his own sagely advice from her childhood. Why have children when the parents themselves are wretched? Could we not consider Sergei’s family to be such people? An adult son who cannot take care of his own family and seems to be relying on his mother to get him funds so his son, who he cannot provide for, can avoid the responsibility of being enlisted as he is clearly not fit to enter higher academia under his own steam? During the conversation they mention money but it never a case of her asking for it or what amount. It could be interpreted that they use money as a substitute for love but her it seems more plausible that although Vladimir clearly does give her money and she has a dry sense of humour they do care for each other but prefer to maintain a distance emotionally because ‘its easier’. Although during the film Vladimir notes he doesn’t see Katya often it is not said with any negative context and he doesn’t express a wish to see her more often. Physical distance allows they to have their own space but in direct contrast we have Elena who gets on a bus, regularly it seems, and visits Sergei’s family in their cramped apartment. This is not a case of ‘the haves’ versus the ‘have nots’ but rather two lifestyles which contrast so immensely we end up asking how things ever worked between Vladimir and Elena since they have such differing views on life. Just because Vladimir hasn’t seen Katya recently it doesn’t mean neither party cares any less for the other but as we view the majority of the film from Elena’s perspective and she ascribed to the socially dominant view if not narrative tradition that a ‘good’ family member should provide freely for another and be in regular contact with the others then a more passive viewer will immediately see this entire exchange as Katya’s empty gesturing in order to ensure her money provisions are secured.
However look at how she dresses as it tells us more about Katya’s perspective than anyone else’s clothing. Meeting Elena she has a heavy dark coloured padded coat, sunglasses (which a more negative interpretation might take as her hiding her real intent or having a hangover hence why she couldn’t go the previous day to see Vladimir), smokes in Elena’s face without acknowledgement and refuses the offer of a drink. Everything screams ‘closed body language’ and a desire to not engage with Elena even before she speaks. With her father she wears light colours, her jacket is draped over her shoulders and later removed, she drinks an entire glass of water, smokes at a distance moving to leave the room and even when offering mild protest and resistant she complies with her father’s requests and feels at ease talking and joking. You could argue that everything with Katya is a facade I suppose but the funeral scene later seems to weigh the perception to a more positive, if not slightly tragic, view of her.
A baby on a bed with a mobile phone. Elena is caring for her son’s baby while everyone is out working presumably. She jokes about it phoning its mama. she picks it up and they go to the kitchen to watch sparrows out the window. This scene is mirrored at the end.
Next Elena is collecting Vlad who is leaving the hospital and is told to observe his medication schedule carefully, that diet is critical and to do nothing stressful. the doctor recommends hiring a qualified carer but Elena says she worked in a hospital for years caring for people and the doctor says ‘perfect’.
We then have an extended scene of the young nurse from earlier changing the duvet covers and such on Vlad’s former bed, tidying the room and opening the window. Was there a point? Maybe to prepare us for what Elena will be doing as Vlad’s carer and what she had been doing throughout the time she has known him.
Vlad watchs the tv sports in silence. She watches tv in a separate room. She goes to check on him, puts the television off and closes the curtains as he is asleep.
The next morning she serves him breakfast in bed. There is silence. He has something to tell her but she reminds him to take his pills first. He has decided to write a will. She admits it makes her uncomfortable. He says its important and the right thing to do as everyone wonders what will happen when he is gone.
He says ‘the only people [he] has in the world are her and his daughter’. His daughter will inherit almost everything and she as his spouse (so they are married!) will receive a life-annuity. he comments he built it up so long and shot it out in ten seconds once he got to it. He asks if there is something she wanted to say. She hesitates and says yes but not concerning what he was talking about as it seems the right time. It’s about Sasha.
He says her son, Sergei, should be taking care of his own son. she is disappointed. He asks what were they thinking when having him. (So we see what Katya said earlier is either influencing his own mind now or he is only now expressing why he will not pay for the boy’s education). ‘Something happened. An accident. Twice!’ Vlad mocks. She scolds him it’s no laughing matter. He challenges that both children were accidents and now he is expected to feed them.
He says it’s not the money that bothers him and she says ‘of course not… you give it all to your thoughtless daughter’. Apparently this is a conversation they have had many times about the inheritance/money. He says not all of it and that she is sensible but Elena doesn’t know her. Its clear the two sides of the family never integrated well. Elena considers her ‘thoughtless and derailed’ but he doesnt want to hear it. She adds ‘and apparently infertile’. (cultural / generational values dissonance). he says that’s foolish, it’s just she isn’t like he and Elena. She says ‘of course’ sarcastically. She is nothing like her son and his family. (a class barrier between his upper middle class life and her working class family). He agrees and she is exaggerates saying ‘oh God’ yet again. (she seems to call on God often but as seen earlier is not a regular attendee of church so it is just a phrase to her with no meaning).
She asks him what gives him the right to think he is special – because he has more money, more things – it can all change. How he asks. ” the last shall be the first” she quotes which he comments are biblical fairy tales ‘…for the poor and foolish’. ‘Quality and fraternity are only to be found in your Heavenly Kingdom, Elena’.
He dismisses her saying she probably has a lot to do. She agrees and asks if he wants anything. Only that she understood him he says. She says she does but obviously there is friction again. He asks they discuss it like adults. He wants a pen and paper as the lawyer is coming tomorrow so he can sketch out a draft of the will.
An extended sequence of her in the kitchen sorting things and getting the paper.
She is then on the phone to Sergei. He asks how Vlad is. She tells him she mentioned Sasha and that ‘we’ll have to deal with this ourselves… He says it’s your job, as a father, to deal with the problem’. Apparently Vladimir is the only option for the money in her mind.
She says she is upset herself but thinks there is some truth to what Vlad said. ‘We’ll figure it out ourselves. We’ll think of something’. Sergei, having put the phone down, calls Vlad a tight arse. He then goes to the fridge and calls out to Tanya, his wife, asking where his beers are. She asks if he got to baby formula but he is more concerned there was a beer in the fridge before. Sasha enters and is asked if he did his homework. Yes. Silence. Tanya enters and also sits at the kitchen table. Silence as they eat crisps. She asks him the same question.
We see again a contrast between Vladimir and Katya’s relationship with that of Elena’s family who though physically close are emotionally unavailable to each other. Most importantly we have Sergei finally in focus. He considers Vladimir a tight arse for not giving over his earnings to his in-laws. He feels they have some right to claim the money. We get no impression Sergei has done anything to contribute towards Sasha’s university fees himself to at least in part provide for his own son. It almost begins to give validity to Vlad’s expectation that Sergei should be, or at least trying to, provide for his own son.
When asks if the essential baby formulae is there he is more focused on his pleasurable drinking of a beer. The implication being we see he is someone who, like his mother, puts on the front of being hard done by but expects easy answers and external influences to aid them not to do things for themselves. Perhaps this is all a statement on the failure of the old commune mentality where the state provides for you versus the contemporary capitalist society where you get what you earn (however you go about earning it).
Elena therefore goes through a transition at this point where she takes the initiative to claim the money instead of expecting a handout in the last part of the film. She seeks to ‘earn’ the money by taking it by force rather than expect a handout charity Vladimir who can provide it but refuses because Sergei doesn’t match the expectations of him.
Elena is sat in silence at her vanity table and looks at herself in the mirror. She goes to look at the bookcase and takes a thick book to read in the kitchen. A medical encyclopedia. She is looking at medication types and goes to look at Vlad’s prescription. Then she is in the kitchen making a vegetable smoothie to serve him with his pills. She even serves those in a small plastic tumbler like a hospital nurse would. Playing the role of the nursemaid. His room, she comments, is a mess because of the balled up rejected drafts. He says it’s all coming out wrong and he can’t focus/concentrate. She tells him to take his medicine first before anything else. She returns to the kitchen waiting tensely. He calls to her to take the bed table away so he can nap. As she is clearing she takes away his bedside phone so he can not call the emergency services.
She walks past a large collection of family photos on the wall and the camera zooms in on one of her stood alone on a forest path smiling. I assume its her. We haven’t seen this wall before so the photos are hard to focus on in their brief moment we see them and it could easily influence our perception of the characters’ relationships. Maybe there are photos of Vladimir or Katya with Elena’s family which would be a massive indicator of their relationships. It is definitely out of keeping with the sterile environment of the apartment we have been presented so far in the film. Silence. We cut to her frowning and waiting pensively. Silence. She moves about and finally goes to check. she puts her head against the door to his room before opening the sliding door. and sees he is dead. She crumples to the floor before going to check his pulse. She tidies the room removing all evidence of his drafted will before checking it and burning the crumpled pages in a glass bowl. She watchs the flames before then dousing them and putting the extractor fan on. She is flustered. She places the box of medication next to his nightstand.
Next we see her sat with a doctor who is incredulous that no one told her to abstain [from sex though they don’t say it]. ‘It is strictly prohibited after a heart attack’. Like little kids, i swear. Dumb teenagers have more sense’ he laments. She says he could be a bit more tactful. She is playing the bereaved wife just as she played the nurse and the concerned wife.
Katya arrives at her father’s funeral with a handful of long stem roses dressed exactly as she was at the cafe. Coincidence or is this to subtly indicate that she is not as frivolous with the money she received as Elena no doubt assumed? Does it symbolise she has shut herself off emotionally again? We see from Katya’s face that she is having a hard time to hold herself in and not break down. We see her sit down and everyone grieves in silence… except Elena who, as Katya had commented earlier, plays her role well as the grieving widow. She is comforted by someone in a military uniform. Who is he? We do not know. We see none of Elena’s family there so must assume it is only Vladimir’s associates. Maybe this man is who inspires Vlad to believe the military to be a valid option for Sasha. Perhaps it was not out of spite he commented that it was the best school but having seen how well this man turned out? We cannot know but again are given options on how to see the events of the film. People stood outside are called in for the final farewells segment of the ceremony.
Next we see Elena lying in her own bed in the apartment running her hand against the wall. Her family haven’t appeared to console her after the death it seems. she gets up and sits at her vanity table brushing her hair as she did at the start of the film and pinning her hair up. Vladimir is gone but nothing has changed. This is her routine. It becomes more apparent that perhaps he was the burden to her rather, as she presented it, that he resented her. She is the one who created the distance between them not him possibly.
We cut to Katya lying on a sofa as bells chime. The camera remains as she slides down and the church bells continue. No trousers on. She is exposed both physically and emotionally. The world moves on but her world has become static. (I forgot to note down what her apartment looks like but there is a lot of natural light and stylish, if utilitarian but definitely not flamboyant, furniture).
Then a cut to Elena with her face lit in profile but otherwise a scene of pure black and silence. She opens the window on Vlad’s now empty but tidied room. We hear the sounds of traffic outside. She is in the kitchen listening to a cooking show eating porridge. We see the screen of the TV reflected on one of the cabinets of the kitchen. The people are comparing various sausages and their worth/quality. What was her relationship with Vladimir worth that she so easily killed him? What quality of a person is she, and by extension her family, to benefit from his death so easily?
Elena, in a later scene, opens the desk and is removing things and putting them into a parcel she puts in her handbag. She checks herself in the mirror and leaves. It was dark here but the windows are all open and sunlight pouring in as she sits down in the living room area. Classical music plays. The phone rings. She goes down to the taxi she ordered. She is putting on her facade again.
We see her look listlessly out of the window of the yellow cab which mirrors Vladimir’s car drive earlier in the film.
In a long shot down a corridor we see a waitress prepare tea. actually its the lawyer’s office which is all pastel creams and window allowing natural light to flood in. The lawyer had visited Vladimir at the hospital but hadn’t documented his wishes, as required by law, in order for them to be binding. He states he is forced therefore, due to a lack of a will, that the principle of legal succession will enter into force. He left no debts otherwise she would be liable to creditors. (So his affairs were in order so as not to burden her it seems). We see Katya sat intensely listening to him with her hair down. She has a blazer, its sleeves crumpled up to the upper arm, and a water effect, wave patterned, blue and white top on under it which seems to denote transition from a spoilt daughter to an adult woman in her own right. No make up of note. Casual smart. As he died Elena is entitled to a portion of the property acquired during marriage i.e. their share of the common property. Katya draws her cigarettes from her pocket. Elena also inherits an equal portion of the inheritance on an equal basis as the other heirs in regards to his personal property.
However, in this case as they were married only just over 2 years, (so during the 8 years of the relationship they were common law partners or having an affair – it is hard to tell as we never hear anything about Katya’s mother) and no common property was acquired. So there can be no talk of a spousal share. Elena looks tense wearing a simple button up cardigan top and her hair pinned back. Elena is in control of herself but, with her hair down, Katya is not its implied in the visuals of the costume design. Elena will only inherit on an equal basis with Katya his common law and personal property. As, to his knowledge, there are no other heirs it will be divided between the two of them.
Katya mentions her father kept a sizeable amount of money in his home safe. (How would she know? Obviously he told her or we have been misled and she has been to visit him just not as often as Elena visit’s her son’s family). Elena claims there was nothing. Katya challenges this. Elena asks she believe her.
He asks if they would like a break as Katya gets up to smoke but she says continue ‘Right, Elena Anatolievna?’ she says and Elena agrees. Katya knows something happened but her hands are tied. She can only suspect and speculate as Elena was thorough in removing any evidence of her actions. It’s the words of a grieving widow against a grown daughter who still received money from her father.
We see Katya smoke often – which is common in Russia so perhaps not something of note but we could take it as her coping mechanism for stress. Meeting Elena is stressful as this is a woman who has ‘intruded’ into her father’s life without bringing anything Katya would consider a benefit to him. When in the hospital she is with her father who just had a heart attack and this too is stressful. We do not see Katya smoke at the funeral (I might be wrong about that) and her apartment – why? Is smoking only something to be done in the presence of others? Is it a social thing? Or, in her grief, she abstains from it. But the habit returns and she needs a cigarette to calm down when she knows Elena has taken the money but cannot prove it. But to reiterate smoking is not as taboo as it is here so maybe it is foolish to interpret it as anything other than what it is at face value.
Next Elena is on a train platform. She is sat alone and overhears conversations. (Unsubtitled sadly as they would probably act as a Greek chorus as the television shows do in this film). The train stops. A muffled voice calls out over the tannoy. People move through the cabin and the door squeakyly opens and closes. The train moves as she looks out the window. A dead white horse lies at a level crossing being inspected by a group of men stood over it. Symbolic – of what I haven’t a clue. Loss of innocence, death of the breadwinner, come to your own conclusions.
Smoke billows out of some cooling towers near Sergei’s apartment. Elena goes up and gives Sergei the money from the safe. Thick bundles of cash. How much? More than they could ever need. He says this is something they should drink to. Elena is beaming with joy at seeing how elated her family are. he asks if there is anything to drink and Tanya says there is something in the fridge. The baby is on Elena’s lap but Sasha is nowhere to be seen. Tanya pulls out a bottle of wine hidden above the kitchen’s upper cabinets. Was this her secret stash? It’s the only bit of characterisation for her we would get in the film if so. Sergei says ‘let’s drink to Vladimir. He did one decent thing in his life, at least’. Ungrateful parasite. Elena suggest they drink to Sasha. #she doesn’t even want to acknowledge Vladimir now she has her ill-gotten gains. Sergei calls to his son and gets a ‘what’ shouted back disrespectfully. He comes into the living room. Sergei calls him ‘college boy’. Sasha asks about the money and Sergei teases that Sasha has never seen so much in his life. As if Sergei has?
Tanya suggests toasting to a new life. Sergei tells his mother they have another surprised for her. Tanya and he are having another baby. She thinks this is wonderful. Sergei says if he has a boy he will call it Vladimir. Tanya hopes it’s a girl. Elena says ‘Yeah, a girl would be better! To a girl!” they drink to the toast. Tanya tells Sergei to go easy on the wine to which Sergei challenges ‘dont rain on my parade woman’. So they will have another child they couldn’t provide for and now have a windfall which they will likely waste having had no experience of dealing with such an amount of money.
The electricity to the apartment cuts out suddenly leaving them sat in the dark. Sasha mocks ‘Game over’. He had been playing games earlier and it seems this is the one note of his character. He speaks not as someone with his own mind but parroting the words of others from his limited experience.
Sergei says it’s probably just the circuit breaker. Elena grips at his arm so tight Sergei says she is going to break his arm. Is she scared of what might happen to him knowing that anything could happen? Anything like a wife killing you with prescribed medicine? Is she becoming a bit like Lady Macbeth? No. But it’s nice to think there would be consequences to her actions. Sergei goes to check and notes ‘looks like the whole building’s out.’ A neighbour calls back to him ‘the whole world!’ “Arseholes” he mutters as laughter is heard down the corridor from the gang of young men.
Someone calles ‘Hey Aleksei” as they check the circuit breaker box but no one knows whats going on. The whole blocks been cut off. ‘Arseholes’, Sergei reiterates, ‘they cut and we pay’ but Aleksei tells him to forget it. Sergei takes no responsibility for his own circumstances choosing to project it onto others. Now we really are challenged to see Elena’s earlier portrayal of the family in a positive light. There is an old saying regarding ‘who you are in the dark’ and we are being exposed to how there was some truth to the dim view Vladimir and Katya held of Elena’s family. The gang of youths walk past Sergei and Aleksei with Sasha leaving to go ‘on a walk’ so Sergei tells him to be back by 11.
Sergei asks Tanya if they’ve any candles. ‘why would we?’ she asks. The family doesn’t make plans for the future they live in the moment and so their circumstances are their own fault. They would prefer to buy beer and computer games rather than invest in their future. It becomes more apparent Vladimir was the back up plan for his money not a valid relative who was part of their family.
We, as an audience, begin to wonder if the division between Vladimir/Katya and Elena/Sergei et al was, as suggested earlier, due to the supposedly elitist father and daughter, a mutual disinterest/disdain or in fact spurred by some resentment by the less well-off family who were jealous of the others circumstances?
Sasha whistles calling out to Vitya and Lesha, his friends unseen until now unless they were part of the young gang Elena passed during her first visit to the building, he runs out to where the youths are. They ask what took him so long. He says his grandmother was on his case. She wasn’t and had actually brought him good news but he is ungrateful. Again we are shown that Elena’s family are undeserving of anything Vladimir would have given to them. They thought he chickened out and almost went without him. He gets offended and they tell him to calm down and offer him a drink which he downs so they tell him to leave some for them as he guzzles it. Clearly the sense of entitlement to others property isn’t just a characteristic of Elena and Sergei. He asks if ‘they’ are there. they all leave together. ‘They’ are an unnamed other and in the morality of Sergei’s family ‘others’ are to be hated without challenge or question. Vladimir and Katya are also other so its easy to see how in fact the animosity seems to come from the family Elena views with rose-tinted glasses and not the more privileged pair.
The gang walks down the road and across the dual carriageway telling a driver to fuck off when he honks at them. They go into the overgrowth by the cooling towers where a long tracking one-shot of them approaching the camp fire and they attack the people around it. One shouts ‘kill him’. It’s a gang fight with sticks and rocks being hurled. Sasha runs away as he is chased. He pulls a knife but Dima, of the ‘other’ gang, singlehandedly beats him and runs off with his friend. Sasha lies still. He is dead it seems but coughs and rolls over. A long-held shot as he rises. Elena’s family are easy to judge others but incapable of dealing with the consequences. If Vladimir had not died what would the consequences have been? We can only speculate but it goes without question this is not someone who deserves to be rewarded for his ill-considered actions. Just like his grandmother he resorts to excess violence to resolve matters when he feels he has lost control of them.
Elena is tidying up Vladimir’s flat with the baby crying on the vacant bed with Tanya eventually attending to it. They have moved in there. Sergei asks why they need sliding doors – he could put a wall in and Sasha could have his own room. Already they seek to change their surrounding to suit them rather than adapt. Elena says they can’t decide anything without Katya. Sergei says ‘We’ll figure something out’ echoing her words tellingly from earlier. She doubts it but he is sure. Sasha, as he did at the start spits off the edge of the balcony. A crow caws in the distance and he looks up and as he looks over his shoulder to the interior we see he has a black eye and a scar over his eyebrow.
Sergei asks his mother if they have any beer. She says look in the fridge. So he has moved into Vladimir’s apartment and now drinks his beer assuring the audience of his parasitic attitude. We hear the TV as he walks out on the balcony with his beer.
As the camera pans across the apartment we hear a contestant on a dating show (similar to blind date) saying ‘I don’t think it matters whose prize you are’
Another ‘he’s got qualities i like. he leads an interesting life, he’s got kind eyes’.
Walking past his son Sergei tussles Sasha’s hair. There seem no consequences to Sasha’s gang fight – if anything this seems to imply that Sergei approves of his son or, like his mother does with him, views his son’s actions through rose-tinted glasses.
Back in the room we hear the presenter ask ‘Choose Katya or Dasha, there’s no difference… whichever one takes your fancy.
You’ll be a trophy!’ other people on the TV say ‘that was so cool, you were better than all of them. Don’t listen to anyone’.
Elena, Tanya and Sergei are sat watching the TV. His arms are outstretched as though he already owns this place. His mother at his right arm but Tanya sat over on another seat. Elena asks if the baby is asleep which Tanya confirms. Tanya remarks ‘Elena Anatolievna, this is amazing!’ and Elena asks if anyone wants tea. Tanya offers to help and Sergei asks Tanya for nuts while watching the pretty women on tv as Tanya tidies the table mirroring the behaviour of Vladimir earlier. He has usurped Vladimir’s lace but is an ill replacement morally as he expects others to provide for him.
We hear the dialogue on TV again: ‘I feel like I am 90 years old, and I want to grumble because you are all younger than me, except Leonid. I think you are all empty-headed bimbos.’
‘Keep it in perspective or you’ll be sitting here until your pension’
The audience on television applaud.
‘She wants a lot, but she doesn’t know what she’s going to give yet’
‘Zhenya what did you think of Lena?’
‘I don’t know what to tell you. Basically… there’s nothing I can say.’
Could we not take the same view of the characters we have seen during this film?
Sasha is still looking out over the balcony and hears young men shouting as they play football. There is a long shot watching the players – some in black t-shirts and the others in orange tabards. Aspiration – this is what Sergei’s family are about but having now gained a better housing situation they are still dissatisfied and desire more. Sasha here still seeks to belong as he looks at the football players but it is aspiration not achievement. Talking of what could be but never making the effort to achieve it for themselves but instead rely on the work of others and if it is not given to them they resort to violence due to their self-assured sense of entitlement.
The baby sleeps turned to the side, just as Vladimir had done earlier, on his vacated bed. Music creeps up as the baby awakens and sits up.
We get the same shot as the start of the film of the window outside Vladimir’s apartment but this time with the family around the table instead of darkness. It’s a bittersweet ending. This image on its own is joyous but what was done to achieve it and if it is sustainable are questions they would rather ignore.
The cycles of behaviour continue unchecked. Elena is unpunished. The insertion of the scene between Vladimir and Katya if removed would have completely shifted the tone of this film. Selfishness won out. There is no justice. Vladimir provided for both Katya and Elena because, after sacrificing everything to achieve what he has, they are all he truly has. For all Elena knew he may have been giving her a greater share in his will but we will never know and she doesn’t care as she has got what she needs albeit through needless evil. If anything its interesting to see how one added scene can make you sympathetic to characters who in another film we would, as an audience, judge as the outright antagonists.
The BBC’s synopsis suggests to me no one actually watched this film but just lifted the description from elsewhere. There was no ‘saving an inheritance’ here but making sure Elena got as much as she could.
If I had to make a comparison in terms of what kind of narrative this is I immediately recall Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Here similar thematics play out as if Vladimir is holding back Elena’s family from living just as Gregor Samsa did his through invalidity. Both were the breadwinner in their mutual situations. Does Elena have any right to expect Vladimir to provide for her family? It is presented as if this is a given initially and if only he would provide the financing then all her families’ worries would be solved. Were they all resolved at the end? It seemed so although they expect to be able to alter their surroundings to suit themselves, Sergei wanting to put in a wall, and their behaviour isn’t fitting for their surrounds with Sergei being loud and Sasha spitting off the balcony.
They aspired to a better quality of life, have got it from their provider’s efforts, but don’t seem able to adapt to it. Metaphorically Gregor’s transformation is indicative of an incapability to change when his family move on and so he is left behind. In that story after Gregor’s death the family are seen to improve in their situation and so we question the ‘reality’ of the presented scenario. It is well note Kafka stated to never depict Gregor as a ‘ungeheures Ungeziefer’ (usually translated as ‘monstrous vermin’. Was Vladimir such a figure? Was his refusal to give all the money for Sasha to go to university truly monsterous? He at first wishes to consider it, then later gives reason for denying it and in later scenes we see that there was some validity to his assumptions (whether he knew it to be true of Sergei and his family or not is debatable). Certainly how Elena seems to serve him makes him come across, as Gregor did, as a burden to the family after his ability to provide is gone. As soon as he is gone, and Sergei’s family have moved in, Vladimir and by extension Katya are no longer a serious consideration in the family’s affairs though they benefitted from them.
Vladimir worked for his money, or at least we are never told how he gained his money so perhaps it wasn’t indicated well in the subtitles if it was by immoral behaviour during the 1990s. We can only speculate. Certainly he is a man used to getting his way as seen by how he initiates intimacy with Elena and it goes unchallenged he checks out younger women. Is this a sign of villainous behaviour, as Elena presents it, or merely the wandering eye of an alpha male as Katya teases him. We could speculate that he did have Katya’s mother around when he met Elena and thus Katya’s distance and disdain for Elena and her family could easily be explained but it is mere speculation. The more we learn the more we stop seeing Elena as the protagonist of the film and just as its focal point which is an important distinction to make. With the opening scenes we sympathise for her Cinderella like lifestyle of servitude but the more we learn and see the more we question until she crosses the moral line and the truth is slowly unveiled about how worthy of charity her family really are.
We as an audience should interpret the film for ourselves and I feel the BBC’s description of Elena ‘saving’ an inheritance is very leading and almost approving of the villainous behaviour of Elena.
‘but she had good reason to’ someone might declare. She needed to provide for her family and Katya would just waste it. But, in contrast Elena did not earn that money, as we see in the lawyer’s office very few if any assets have been bought since she and Vladimir began their relationship so everything we have seen was purchased by Vladimir’s money alone and as his spouse she has a right to half of it and, taking an Elena sympathising view, we are meant to feel she is ‘cheated’ of the rest of his property because Katya is also a rightful inheritor even though Elena stole the money from the safe rather than declare it. it is a point of argument and that is the point. There is no one universal correct answer here. Elena wants to provide for her family and they need the money. Katya is presented as being hedonistic but we only have the comments of other characters to confirm this. We, as an audience, only have what is presented in frame to interpret and it goes without saying that each of the characters has a bias.
Vladimir: Is he an emotionally cold man used to being in absolute control over people or a man putting up a facade to deceive himself that he is not as isolated as he is presented in all his scenes? He shows love towards Katya and speaks frankly with Elena about why he can’t provide the money. So is his love selfish, as he ensures Katya is okay but ignores others or is he a moral man who comes across cold because he must make such choices so he doesn’t allow himself to be manipulated by charity cases?
Elena: Is she more a live in carer than a lover? Katya is his stubborn daughter who he deeply cares for and despite putting up a front does sincerely reciprocate his love. Sergei’s family we never see him interact with but who Elena expects him to provide for. Is she truly a loving and doting wife or did she aspire to a better lifestyle and only later regretted leaping at the first and easiest opportunity for this? At what point did Vladimir’s fortune become the priority in Elena’s assessment of things – from their first meeting, as she aspired to a better standard of life, or only when he refused to subsidise Sasha’s draft dodge and she had an opportunity to ensure she got her desired result? Vladimir is an emotionally cold person towards her but one who guarantees, due solely to his money, a good standard of life. One which she wishes to share with her son’s family by ‘buying’ Sasha’s way into university so he can avoid the obligatory military service many young men of his age have to. Katya is the daughter from another marriage and things are cold between them. We never see Elena take Katya into consideration only consulting her in order to influence Vladimir when he becomes stubborn and to ‘play the good wife’. There is no love lost between the two. Sergei’s family she sees through rose-tinted glasses doting on them and travelling to see them.
Katya: Is she living off her father’s money or does he, as Elena does, provide to his child without question having never really cut ties as a parent? Does she see him very little because of some issue in the past like his meeting Elena which makes her uneasy? Did she and Elena ever get on at all? Elena calls her by her diminutive but is that sincere or an act as Katya doesn’t return it? Was Katya’s hospital visit all an act to ensure continued financial support? Does she just play the good, if emotionally reticent, daughter to him or does she truly care but has learned from him to keep her emotions guarded behind a facade of dry humour? What we know of her is generally given by other characters but we see her take responsibility by attending the funeral and the lawyer’s office and challenge, as best she could give the lack of evidence, the missing money from the safe. She is a character who practises restraint even at a funeral but at times shows her true personality which are positive characteristics like standing up for herself, mourning her father’s passing and calling out inconsistencies (the missing money). Sasha in contrast to her is easily controlled and does act out in ungrateful rebellion towards his parents despite being clearly spoiled by them.Is it just teenage rebellion or signs of him growing into an immoral adult who sees aggression as an effective tool to resolve conflict and get what he wants?
Just like Vladimir she puts on a front of being cold but it is a facade that is easily broken between the mutually loving father and daughter. Or maybe you think they, either one or both, are lying when no one else, except the audience, is watching which is a possible perception of the scene. Elena is an unwelcome figure to Katya. We must ask is Katya unaccepting, believing her mother (who I think is never actually mentioned) should be the only woman in Vladimir’s life and Elena therefore is an unwelcome interloper? Or does she know Elena to have never been a loving person and clearly only there for the inheritance? Katya I don’t recall mentioning Sergei’s family except when Elena mentions them and expresses the same view as her father: Sergei is a grown man and should provide for his own family not expect handouts.
Do we as an audience view Vladimir’s money support as being obligatory due to familial ties or as an act of charity Elena expects of him without compensation? ‘But she has put up with him for years!’ someone cries. And? There were other things Elena could do to support her family but she expects Vladimir’s money, which we later learn was all but completely earned before his meeting her, to be her money also. What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine too.
Certainly we don’t see Sergei or his family make any express effort towards keeping Sasha out of the army themselves. If anything it seems like an inevitability and something that would draw him away from the gang lifestyle he seems to be aspiring too. Of course in the 90s the people who profited the most were unscrupulous business men or criminals and Vladimir must have been one or the other we assume but both required risk and effort. Sasha wants the easy route, the criminal route, but in contrast we have Vladimir who worked for his lifestyle and who is resistant to giving someone he isn’t responsible for an easy life though he spoils Katya as a doting father. you could argue he is making up for past indiscretions but it is, like many things regarding his past, speculation on our part.
We can take the procession of events as either Sergei’s family fully expecting Elena to get the money for them or that, unspoken, there is a belief that Sasha would benefit from the army – after all when we focus on Sasha he is either involved with the gang of youths (and later is beaten up because of it) or playing computer games (which is quite lazy ‘older generation’ imagery for wasting time just as for their generation watching television would have been the equivalent though it’s now presented in a less judgemental way).
Sasha is the one character in the film we have focus on (Tanya plays the generic background wife and has no impact on the narrative whatsoever) where we do not have the option of interpreting his character. At the start he was heading out to be with the gang, then denied this he sits playing computer games and his father tries to bond with him while doing so to explain why he can’t, and then later Sasha, having defied his parent’s choice, is involved in a gang fight with the final scene of him being one where he is spitting off the balcony the family has moved into.
If this was an American film there would be a direct-to-video sequel where Elena tries to kill Katya too so she can get all the inheritance or thriller where Katya gets revenge for her father’s murder. Instead we are left with the image of a family given more than they deserve and wanting to change it to suit them rather than adjust and ‘improve’ themselves. Parasites. Parasites who leave us questioning if Elena began her relationship with Vladimir because of the prospect that his money would improve her family’s life. A selfless individual to those who sympathise but a parasite to those who see her behaviour for what it is: a lazy answer to universal struggle and one where she speeds the desired result up and steals the money from the safe getting half of his lifetime’s accrued assets for a few years of a passionless relationship having, as Katya puts it, played the role of the good wife.
Summary review: Elena is a divisive character and one who raises interesting questions about morality and society. The film is one I definitely recommend as long as you understand it is a slow-paced drama and it is all about characters’ interactions and coming to your own understanding of who is or is not sympathetic. Nadezhda Markina and Elena Lyadova are both fantastic in their roles and I hope to see them in more though all around the cast is tremendously strong. It is a film which is better reflected on, shared and discussed with others as there is enough space here to raise questions of morality and society’s expectations of individuals. There is no justice in the world – just your survival and ensuring the survival of those you love.
Elena – Nadezhda Markina
Vladimir – Andrey Smirnov
Katerina – Elena Lyadova
Sergey – Aleksey Rozin
Tatyana – Evgeniya Konushkina
Aleksandr – Igor Ogurtsov
Director – Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cinematography – Mikhail Krichman
Producer – Aleksandr Rodnyansky
Writers – Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev
Music – Phillip Glass
Quite a rambling review but the points are made. You could also take other readings of the narrative I didn’t touch upon such as how it reflects the failure of the social values of the Communist era where the emphasis isn’t placed on the individual to provide for society but of how much society can provide for the individual. Questions of how this reflects the inherent corruption of the Soviet system which has been internalized by those who needed to cheat the system just to survive and now expect to be provided for. It could be seen as a ‘morganatic marriage nearly a century after the October Revolution’ as someone said. You could even go as far as to argue it represents the conflicts of the early twentieth century in which the Tsar, having failed to successfully provide for his people, was overthrown by the Bolsheviks. It would be a bit of a stretch but it could be done.
Yet again I have an issue with WordPress’ layout system so everything has to be sectioned off so it isn’t a massive block of text…
Comment, Like, Follow – All are welcome. What was your view of the film if you have seen it?