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Friday, July 13, 2012 - Page updated at 03:00 p.m.
'Elena': Second wife plans sabotage in impressive Russian film noir
By John Hartl
Special to The Seattle Times
The unmistakable sounds of Philip Glass tell you right away that "Elena" is no ordinary Russian melodrama.
What's an American musical score doing here? The break with tradition may seem jarring, even perverse at times, but it eventually justifies itself and becomes a vital part of the filmmakers' ripe approach to a familiar story.
Promoted as a post-Cold War film noir, "Elena" begins with a deliberately lengthy opening shot that could almost be mistaken for a still photograph. It seems to be announcing that the director, Andrei Zvyagintsev ("The Return"), is taking charge for the next couple of hours in order to deliver his fatalistic message.
His aging central characters behave almost ritualistically: waking up to the sounds of an electric razor, delivering a perfunctory morning kiss, paying less-than-close attention to a television program that advises a "lifestyle adjustment" that involves eating more salads.
Elena is a former nurse and a determined member of the Second Wives' Club. When her wealthy husband, Vladimir, suffers a heart attack and appears unlikely to recover, she sets out to foil his inheritance plans.
Driven by greed and estrangement, Elena and her relatives are often so extreme that they verge on the ridiculous — especially a loathsome couch-potato son (Sergey Rozin) who inspires his mother's plans to sabotage Vladimir's will.
But while they may be larger-than-life monsters, they're never unbelievable. Nadezhda Markina brings a slow-burn quality to Elena that emphasizes her remarkable patience. Andrey Smirnov manages to suggest that Vladimir's feeling for her (they met when he was her patient) hasn't entirely left him.
Zvyaginstsev makes the most of the ghastly settings, which include a backyard that ominously features nuclear cones — and the kinds of compartmentalized living spaces that Hitchcock used for droll effect in "Rear Window."
John Hartl: firstname.lastname@example.org
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