There is a horse. There is also a man, and his grandson in law. The first two die; the last lies on the ground so long after being beaten that it seems he dies, but he gets up. What else needs to be known? When the horse passes into view out the train window, a little boy cries "look!" Hitting it, presumably, was why the train came to a stop a few moments before, and why policemen hurried through the car. The eponymous Elena seemed to fidget when the uniforms clomped through, but then, she doesn't actually move much. I just know that she killed the aforementioned man, her husband, Vladimir, and therefore I imagine her pang of fear and guilt at the sight of the law. Anyway, in the extreme long view Elena--but not Elena--takes Vladimir may as well be the dead horse. Indeed, why does he die? For the sake of her grandson, who could die any day in a gang fight. Vladimir, who unapologetically cares for nothing but money, would have thought his own death a poor investment.

About perspective. The film begins and ends with a shot of winter tree limbs in front of Vladimir's house. The focus begins at the foremost branch, and very slowly shifts to the house's windows. Vladimir and Elena live in one of those brutally convenient modernist things that was once so outside the box, it became one. He sleeps in the worst part of it, she on a fold-out couch in the coziest room, truer to her class origins. The two of them met when she was nurse to him in the hospital, and it seems that as his wife she has carried on in this same capacity. Watching Elena go about her domestic duties is like a defanged version of Jeanne Dielman. She has less routine, and less time for her routine to explode, but explode it does.

When Vladimir tells her that he plans to write a will, that his daughter, Katya, will get almost everything, and that he has no intention of providing for her grandson, she takes his dishes (on a designer wooden tray) back to the kitchen and sets them down roughly, with a clang. The next day she furtively reads his draft; cut to her feeding carrots into a juicer, which sounds remarkably like paper shredding. It is alongside this frothy carrot juice that she serves him an excess of pills, popping extras into the cup with a kind of nervous whimsy.

Elena speaks, but she is understood through her actions, though the body language of her long, patient time on the screen. I fell in love with the head of this film, who does nothing but speak, and who happens to be Vladimir's pretty daughter. It seems not too shaky of a conjecture that Andrey Zvyagintsev, writer and director, fancied her, too. He imbued her with the whole of the truth-telling--and all the word play, to boot.

As the linguistic articulation of the film's cinematic distance, she, too, takes the long view. Her father accuses her of saying everything is pointless. She does. There is a bit of cheek, though, to her dire pronouncements. She's deadly serious, but so sometimes are the best comedians. Everything may be pointless, but people like Zvyagintsev would like to believe that there is a point in communicating why. I'm in the same boat.

One of the more memorable things she says is that one has children to suck the life from them. Of course, the opposite occurs--quite literally, if indirectly. Not that Elena's grandson wants the money that she goes to such ends to get for him.

As for Vladimir, he smiles and says that he's cheered up by his daughter's caustic words. So, I find, am I. These two scenes, in which with her tongue she first dispatches Elena and then Vladimir in his hospital bed following a heart attack, are the only clarity, and the only real mirth. Although, personally, I giggled at the bits of television that were chosen for the domestic scenes. After Elena kills Vladimir, she's watching people evaluate a new "sausage product." "I like No. 6. It's quite edible." "No 3 tastes very sausagey." Katya's verbal flaying, however, did more than elicit quiet giggles. I was warmed through.

"I barely see you, Katya," says Vladimir.

"That's because I'm standing against the light." (She's in front of the window.)

"I didn't mean it in that sense."

"Dad, you know that nothing like sense even exists."

"Looking at you, sometimes I think, that might even be true."

"So, it's OK that you barely see me."

Their dialogue goes on like this, full of puns and metaphor. Yes, this was the filmmaker's transparent philosophizing, yet its agile twists along words' axes thrilled me. I could've kissed her. Her father did. The consonance of these was, I admit, a little discomforting. Yet still my fervor is enough that I want to reprint just a bit more of the script here:

"You've always loved those word games."

"Games help children come to terms with the cruel laws of reality."


"Nope. Not going to happen. I'm not pregnant, if that's what you were asking."

"Too bad. It'd sort you out."

"I am sorted. Alcohol and drugs only on the weekends. It's clean living now. Of all the pleasures I'm still getting sex and food under control, but I'm working on myself, trust me."

Katya does nothing but express her interiority, however sarcastically; Elena becomes a sublime object, despite how much time there is to watch and get to know her. In part this is because Katya--who has the last word on everything--distrusts her performances. "Listen, Elena Anatolievna. You're playing the role of the worried wife. You do that very well. Congratulations." I therefore contracted the same paranoid reading of Elena's every facial movement. This both made her fascinating to watch, and is rather unforunate. Vladimir by contrast is highly readable. For a little while the camera follows him about his day. He goes to the gym; he ogles girls. The only perhaps mystifying thing about him is his rejection of pleasure, which is a fairly mundane bit of father psychology.

Defamiliarizing the feminine is rather familiar. But then, I already admitted the origin of this scrutiny. Isn't this just how the wealthy eye the poor: with the suspicion that the poor are out to take their money? In this case, it's true. By the end, Elena's family have taken over Vladimir's house. But while the hysterical search for the actor behind the act may have a sound cause, there's no sense in it. Which makes me wonder about having watched Elena, during which I looked endlessly for signs of Elena.

Do you prefer your movie-going sensible or senseless?

2 October 2012