'Elena' an incredibly acted 2011 drama directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev tells the story of a middle aged
Moscow woman from a modest background who is married to a richer, older man. The
story is essentially about their relationships with their own and each other’s
children; she has a wastrel son with two kids and her husband has a spoilt and cynical daughter.
Everything in the film is superbly done, as it is in his two previous movies, and it is bleakly beautiful, deeply moving, subtle and unerringly honest. But there is another reason for insisting that you watch it.
I’ve spent a lot of time throughout the last decade trying to communicate the nature of this city to people elsewhere, without ever feeling I have really captured it, or expressed it halfway accurately. Nor, for that matter, have I read much by anyone else who managed it. But 'Elena' absolutely is Moscow as it looks and feels and moves and sounds. From the minimalist, dark wood clad apartments of the rich, on the streets around Ostozhenka, where I have often worked over the years, to the shabby, wasteland ringed tower blocks at the fringes of the monster. It simply is the lived reality of the city, so much so that I sense I should just shut up and send a copy to everyone who asks. It’s all there: the cramped kitchens, the wall to wall glass fronted cupboards full of assorted glasses and cups, the half grass half mud spaces between graffiti splattered concrete walls, the trains with hawkers walking through the carriages selling pens and magazines with a half hearted sales routine that they have already done 30 times today. It seems they just filmed what is.
It skips the grand buildings of the centre, no Kremlin, no University, no monuments to generals or poets; apart from the Church of Christ the Saviour glimpsed briefly between two apartment buildings there is nothing of Tourist Moscow at all. Moscow Babylon is likewise absent, as it is absent from the lives of the vast majority who live here and so the picture is greyer than it might be.
The story is perhaps bleaker than most people’s stories here, but there is not a false note in the 109 minutes, and there are times like this in the majority of our lives: times when money is more important than it should be, when loyalties destroy principles, times when we are not particularly nice.
And, though the story of the families involved could and does happen everywhere, the world Zvyagintsev shows is utterly and unflinchingly Moscow: this is it, this is exactly how it is.