No scene ends up in a movie by accident. Everything about the film noir Elena suggests it’s headed for a straightforward wrap-up—until a few of Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev’s more unusual choices make for a far more gripping finale. You don’t put this film out of your mind when the credits roll. You think about it.
Which is a welcome achievement in this otherwise pedestrian story, penned by Oleg Negin. The title character (Nadezhda Markina) is a dowdy former nurse who married into money when she wed Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). The AARP-aged couple have a comfortable routine in their expansive apartment, with Elena waking up Vladimir each morning—they sleep in separate bedrooms—and serving him breakfast. They have a life of leisure, with Vladimir spending time at the gym and Elena running errands or visiting her son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin).
Sergei is a source of contention between the couple. He’s unemployed with a wife and two kids, one of whom Sergei wants to send to college instead of letting him join the military. But the video-game-playing layabout didn’t do so hot in school, so bribes are in order. Vladimir and his wealth are their only hope—but he prickily refers to his step-grandson as a “practical stranger.” So Elena does what she feels she must to help the brat. A subplot involving Vladimir’s distant daughter (Elena Lyadova) is integral to the story but given little time.
Minimalist beauty and pristine (if somewhat cold) composition are paramount in Elena, with Zvyagintsev beginning and ending the film with the same outside-looking-in shot of the très moderne apartment. (He also opens with what’s becoming a bit of an indie cliche: a succession of shots of empty rooms.) Besides the film’s good looks, however—plus an unusually unintrusive score by Philip Glass—there’s little that’s remarkable here until Zvyagintsev lets things get odd: You may gasp when you realize what the always-placid Elena is willing to do to ensure her grandson avoids the military, but otherwise, the story comprises nothing more than her day-to-day. Nevertheless, there’s a lulling rhythm to the rituals; you watch and wait, transfixed. When done right, simple is sublime.