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By Lauren Carroll Harris
June 11, 2012
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Elena

A modern-day Russian fairytale with a relatable, repugnant core.
By Lauren Carroll Harris
June 11, 2012
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At some point in my childhood I was given, by some weirdly joyless relative, a tome of “fairytales” by Hans Christian Andersen. As anyone who’s read these will know, they’re not the kind of happily-ever-after stories that we know, but grim, anti-Disney nightmares where protagonists pay the ultimate price for amoral behaviour. Elena is a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale for adults, relocated to Russia in 2012.

Elena spends most of her time caring for the men in her life who could only be described as miserable wretches. Her wealthy husband treats her like a nurse. She wakes him up every morning, makes his bed. They kiss each other on the cheek, numbly ask about each others’ plans for the day, but share little intimacy. Meanwhile, her deadbeat son from another partner treats her like an ATM. When her husband suffers a health scare and decides to rewrite his will, allocating almost everything to his own distant and uncaring daughter, Elena makes a decision that is at once completely understandable and utterly morally repugnant.

There is never any question of criminal apprehension: the heart of this beautifully shot film lies in the weight of Elena’s decision on her own conscience. The films’ settings are wonderfully bleak. A huge power reactor looms like a warning over Elena’s son’s apartment block. Russia’s overcast sky - sunless and shadeless, in eternal twilight - becomes, in turn, a kind of awful judgment on her action. Director Andrei Zvyagintsev is best known for his 2003 film, The Return, and his segment in 2009’s New York, I Love You. His assured and slowly edited emphasis on the daily minutiae of Elena’s life serves to build an awful sense of suspense and oncoming calamity, as does Philip Glass’ glowering score.

At three devastating points following Elena’s choice, the film breaks away from the plotline to deliver purely symbolic and quite creepy omens. To reveal these moments would be wrong, but they leave little doubt as to the director’s intentions for Elena’s atonement — after all, the tagline is “Thy will be done”.

Nadezhda Markina, as Elena, never moralises, and her layered performance has won her a bounty of best actress awards. Many people can’t abide slow-building subtitled films about relentlessly unhappy people. But closet pessimists like myself and the Cannes judges (the film won the Special Jury Prize last year) will find Elena’s sense of impending doom oddly satisfying.

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