This brilliant modern twist on classic noir uncovers evil and corruption at all levels of Russian society.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's third feature film offers a caustic, numbed examination of evil, selfishness and corruption, perhaps intended as a comment on contemporary Russian society, maybe even intended as a comment on the putrification of humanity at large. A little like a glassy neo-noir update of Von Stroheim's seminal silent epic, Greed, or Bresson's withering swansong, L'argent, the film grapples with the intoxicating allure of money and the way in which its relentless acquisition often comes with a dark human collateral.
Pairing back the sequence shot torpor of his 2007 snoozer, The Banishment, Zvyagintsev's lean, engrossing and beautifully constructed drama sees the paunchy, largely unemotive housewife of the title (Nadezhda Markina) tending to her rich but ailing older husband with whom she appears to be emotionally estranged. Financially, she is a kept woman, and so, by extension, are her money-grabbing brood from another marriage. When her husband decides to cut-off all financial assistance to Elena's loser son, his wife and their two children, stern action needs to be taken.
It's a film which toys with ominous inevitability, presenting apparently banal situations and then positing the suggestion of threat or violence by simply allowing them to slowly play out. Although the first segment of the film makes you think that we are seeing this story from Elena's perspective, it suddenly branches off to follow her husband on a trip to the gym. While there, lithe women gawp at him in dismay as he sweatily splutters over the controls of the treadmill. He then takes to the pool, and the camera floats above him like an angel of death as he glides down the lanes. And then his splashing and kicking suddenly stops.
Despite a single off-camera sex scene, Elena is a film which is entirely bereft of physical and sincere acts of love. Elena's son plays on a computer game with his son, though the implication is that he wants to be playing the game, disconnecting himself from familial responsibility, rather than bonding with his kid. Even Elena's efforts to help her impoverished offspring derive from an unquantifiable sense of duty more than they do an undying bond of mother-child love.
This notion of an omnipresent violence in Russian society is at its most pronounced in another discursive horror sequence near the end of the film, where Elena's grandson meets with some friends, they stride through some scrubland and then set about pummeling another, similarly-attired group of boys. In terms of adding to the sweep of the narrative, it would be easy to dismiss this extended (and bravura) scene as being apropos of nothing. However, it adds to this idea of the creation of a certain mindset, where youth have malice coursing through their veins and the process of inflicting human misery has become a rite of passage.
Nadezhda Markina's performance in the lead role is a kind of non-performance, where she plays Elena as someone who has relinquished herself all all palpable human emotion over the years. Her spiritual emptiness makes the film all the more believable, and neatly accounts for some of her more questionable acts in the latter parts of the story. Also great is Elena Lyadova as Elena's jet-setting daughter-in-law, a character who experiences a monumental shift in fortunes during the film's relatively short chronology. Her evil is rooted in her total apathy for the happiness and wellbeing of others.
If the film has a problem, it's to do with a central twist which stretches credibility for the sake of its thesis. But this is otherwise an exceptional piece of filmmaking, one which brilliantly attaches a dour contemporary resonance to a militantly old school genre template.
Everyone who saw this play in the Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar said it should've been in competition.
Always compelling, always bleak.
A withering admonishment of capitalism and the emotional mindset that comes with.