In Elena, Andre Zvyagintsev patiently watches the banal evils as they unfold. Not afraid to let the shot or the silence linger, he waits, letting the small moments of brutishness or selfishness establish themselves. He seems to want to let us know that this is the day to day, that this is what we have learned to put up with.
The film’s opening sequence follows Elena’s morning routine as she prepares the house and breakfast so it is ready for her husband Vladimir when he awakens. The camera allows us access to so much of the minutiae of the morning ritual that when Elena makes Vladimir’s bed after he awakens and then he immediately throws his dirty pajamas on top of it, we cannot help but see that he treats her as his servant. It is no surprise when later we find out that they met because she was his nurse when he was hospitalized for appendicitis.
Zyvagintsev does not highlight this moment. There is no reaction shot that makes sure we know how Elena feels. The next shot is her patiently waiting for him, the breakfast she has prepared laid out on the table. Perhaps there is no reaction shot because there is no reaction. This is every day for Elena.
What else is day to day? Vladimir leering at a woman in the gym as she works out. Elena’s son Sergey drinking beer and waiting for his mother to bring him money to pay to take care of his family. The giant nuclear power plant filling up the whole window of Sergey’s apartment. His son Sasha playing video games and waiting for Vladimir to pay to get him into college.
Elena seems to be our one moral character – selflessly caring for a family that only contains children. She hardly complains as she cares for Vladimir, Sergey, and Sasha. When she kills Vladimir after he explains why he is writing his will so she will get a smaller inheritance than his daughter, it feels shockingly out of character. But it is not – Elena has done what she needed to do to survive for the whole film. It just so happens that much of that lines up with traditional conceptions of morality.
This is the world Zvyagintsev wants us to see – the one where morality is convenience. The one where doing evil is just what we had to do to stay comfortable.
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