Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose 2003 feature debut, "The Return," was a masterpiece of cinematic allegory, turns to noirish territory, by way of Dostoevsky, in his third film, the spellbinding and impeccably crafted"Elena."
Set in contemporary, well-to-do Moscow and its seedy, Soviet-leftover suburbs, the drama lays bare the moral dilemma — and class divide — between a 60ish couple. Elena (Nadezhda Markina) and Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) share an orderly life in the ocean-blue expanse of their apartment, but their relationship feels more like an arrangement than a marriage.
In one of the film's many brilliant touches, Elena's place in the household becomes clear only gradually, her separate bedroom and peasant sturdiness suggesting at first that she might be the housekeeper. She was, it turns out, once Vladimir's nurse.
The calm surface of respect and affection that unites husband and wife shatters whenever the contentious subject of their respective children arises. He supports his estranged and seemingly heartless daughter (Yelena Lyadova) but balks when expected to provide for Elena's layabout son (Alexey Rozin) and his family. Blinded by blood ties, Elena — who views infertility as a character flaw — treks by bus and train to the dilapidated housing project where her gormless teenage grandson barely grunts hello.
Just as the hermetic serenity of the Moscow apartment gives way to a bleak wasteland on these trips, the film moves from suggestions of disquiet to unrelenting dread and anxiety. The unraveling mood is ably abetted by Philip Glass' Symphony No. 3 as well as samplings of insipid TV chatter.
The script, by Oleg Negin and Zvyagintsev, uses spare dialogue to quietly devastating effect. Performances are superb across the board, framed in elegant widescreen compositions that simmer with violence. In "Elena," survival has its price, if not its punishment.
"Elena." No MPAA rating; in Russian with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes. At the Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.