Intricacies of human relationships – especially those bound by the institution of family – is the most evident theme recurring throughout Zvyagintsev’s filmography. Yet while both The Return and The Banishment worked best as allegorical assessments of the Russian society, Elena shifts slightly to a neo-realist convention.
Elena is forced to choose between remaining an obedient wife or proving herself as a caring mother; When asked by her unemployed son for financial support she is confronted by her husband who has no intention in indulging his step-son’s needs. She is however convinced that she has an obligation as a mother to give the support that is asked for – especially that her middle-class husband can afford such expense.
Elena lives in two worlds. One is the world of obscurity symbolised by the old apartment block in which her son resides together with his constantly growing family. The other is the world of luxury which she entered upon marrying her wealthy husband, a source of comfort but loneliness at the same time. The financial differences between the two worlds are not however what bothers Elena the most. Her conundrum resonates from an inability to switch between two different moral codes both worlds appear to operate on.
Zvyagintsev reflects on Russia as a whole through Elena’s self-conflicted character. She personifies two different aspects of the Russian society – the post-communist Russia, troubled by social instability and bound by religious dogma, and the modernist Russia, financially secure but cold and calculated in its pragmatism. Elena’s paradox is that by following her moral principles she commits a crime which inevitably turns her into a cold pragmatic. In the end, Elena’s sense of morality is tied to her emotions and these lead her to carry out questionable judgments.
Zvyagintsev’s story has definitely less mysticism to it than his previous films but that only shows that the director can inject some diversity without compromising his style of filmmaking. The music used in the film is slightly too evocative of Philip Glass’ score to The Hours. However, assuming that this parallel was intentional, the music emphesises perfectly the heroine’s emotional state. Zvyagintsev’s ability to identify with his female alter-ego is remarkable to say the least. The feminine element is present in all of his films, but with Elena Zvyagintsev pushes the boundaries even further. He channels his female lead Yelena Lyadova to a level comparable with what Ingmar Bergman once achieved through Liv Ullmann. Yet no matter how masterful, he remains unassuming in his craft, making sure that our whole attention is directed at no one else but Elena. And very much so, Elena portrays precisely what the title promises to deliver.