COLD WARRIORS: Elena (Nadezhda Markina) tends to her distant husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) in 'Elena.'

The important Russian director Andrei Zvyagintsev's third film, Elena, is a kind of thriller—at least the urgent, cello-driven Philip Glass score mutters about violent tensions beneath the smooth surfaces. In the mausoleumlike flat of a rich Moscow citizen, joy is as firmly excluded as dust. The flat remains silent except for the imbecile chatter of a TV. Its owner, the idle Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), is a bald, virile and ruthless type on the lines of Alan Arkin or Harve Presnell.

Vladimir's wife, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), is a fat, sad woman in a rut of routine—waking in her single bed, tying her dull hair back at a vanity table and taking care of Vladimir's needs. Her day's errand is to fetch her pension money and deliver it far into the exurbs, where her layabout son, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), from an earlier relationship lives. Elena's grandson Sasha is ripe for crisis; he's about to get scooped up into the army unless he can bribe his way into college for the deferment. And Sasha gives no sign of being anything but a sullen donkey.

Zvyagintsev's camera creeps up, catlike, on these Russians. He encourages speculation. How did Vladimir get his fortune? Perhaps not the clean way. The businessman's very beautiful and very cold daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadova), hates her father in that old-movie style, where the hatred is oversized and articulate. When her dad starts needling her to have a baby, Katerina denounces his "rotten seed."

This film by the director of the allegorical The Return features uncommonly good sound editing—one of the best qualities of Hitchcock's thrillers, to which this film's been justly compared. The slow exploration of Elena's world is visually austere but alive with sound: the nattering of the TV, the croak of a crow circling in on the bare branches outside her balcony, the far-off howl of car alarms.

If there's a glaze of melodrama on Elena, as in the scenes where Katerina denounces her father, this is ultimately the kind of melodrama that's nothing but common sense written loud. In this study of a nation coming apart like a badly sewn suit, the gentle but slightly cowlike Elena becomes the center. She's a kind of Mother Russia in the position of having to forgive both sides of the class war.


NR; 109 Min.

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