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Nothing is as it seems in taut contemporary drama 'Elena'

By Colin Covert

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

Published: Friday, Oct. 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

Nadezhda Markina as Elena and Andrey Smirnov as Vladimir in "Elena."

Zeitgeist Films

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"ELENA" — ★★★★ — Nadezhda Markina, Andrei Smirnov, Yelena Lyadova, Alexey Rozin and Evgenia Konushkina; in Russian with English subtitles; not rated but probable R (mature themes); Broadway

"Elena" is a riveting psychological suspense film. The story is taut domestic drama combined with a treacherous noir-style plot.

Understated but deeply resonant, it boasts a supremely enigmatic narrative that requires us to observe in an active way, coaxing meaning out of seemingly innocuous actions.

Little is as it seems; motive, gender roles and culpability itself are ever in flux. Directed with sardonic detachment by Russian maestro Andrei Zvyagintsev, it builds its characters slowly, letting our sympathies settle where they may, then blindsiding us with surprises.

The first and final images are nature shots of barren branches, ominous echoes of the gnarled family trees at the heart of the story.

Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a dutiful, 50-ish nurse recently married to elderly, affluent Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who was once her patient. They have lived side by side in his ultramodern Moscow apartment for two years, he in the elegant minimalist master bedroom, she in a modest, cozy chamber filled with mementos of her humble life. She is more servant than wife, setting out his meals and medications.

Vladimir is a steely-eyed oligarch who refuses to support the shiftless adult son of her first marriage and her teenage grandson, who needs to buy his way out of military service.

When a crisis puts Vladimir's considerable fortune up for grabs, Elena finds herself toe-to-toe with his long-absent daughter.

If you are already forming opinions about who is the villain and the victim, not so fast.

By the time "Elena" has wrung you out, you will feel pity and abhorrence for every character in equal measure; choosing sides would be like picking a favorite from a jar full of scorpions.

Zvyagintsev's gliding camera conjures free-floating anxiety in Vladimir's glossy central-Moscow wonderland and the high-rise slums at the periphery where Elena's family lives. Philip Glass' score accentuates the psychological tension. "Elena" is a fascinating parable of the tensions between Russia's haves and have-nots that never descends to bloodless allegory.

"Elena" is not rated but would probably receive an R for mature themes; running time: 109 minutes.

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