Andrei Zvyagintsev's spare drama Elena paints a portrait of contemporary urban Russia by focusing on the intersection of two families. Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) is wealthy retired businessman, with an estranged but spoiled daughter. Working-class Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is Vladimir's second wife; she continues to support her unemployed son and his family, who live in the industrial suburbs. Not much happens, until one party feels pushed into a corner, and a serious crime is committed.
Elena is a slow burner, relying more on handsomely depicted process than plot to illustrate its characters and its themes. Through her daily routine, Elena's relationship to her husband is that of a housekeeper, while the omnipresent TV in the sleek apartment spews endless inanities about products. When Vladimir goes to the gym, we see his big Euro sedan, his irritation at being delayed by pedestrians (a crew of workers) and the deference shown to him by the gym staff.
Some viewers may find the minimal plotting of Elena to be tedious or frustrating. But Zvyagintsev's film is more of a critical mirror than a domestic thriller, an exercise in reflecting a current morality — or really, amorality — in post-Soviet Russia, with its uneasy mix of state dependency, cold-eyed individualism, families fractured across ideological divides and a rampant consumerism.