I’ve usually not one to let my personal views of characters get in the way of my engaging with a film. Sure, if they’re weak characters, I’ll have a problem, but when a character is well-realized and somewhat consistent, I’ve no problem taking them as the film presents them, even if I disagree with their beliefs and actions. But with Elena, I vehemently disagree with the character so much that I find almost every conflict in the film is contrived by the downright naïve, yet well-meaning, acts of the titular character.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) gives all of her monthly stipend to her unemployed son and his family. Even though he’s grown with two children, suffering no physical or mental ailments, Elena takes it upon herself to support him and his family. He never expresses a desire to have a job, comes across as a general bum who’s unmotivated to do even the smallest of tasks to help his family. And when their son (Elena’s grandson) faces the draft, he asks his mother to pump Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov)—her current husband who is more interested in his own daughter—for funds to send her grandchild through college.
I don’t buy the conflict for a number of reasons. The first is that I honestly do not see what is so terrible about being drafted. No one ever explains what is so horrible about it. It’s just assumed all the audience must assume drafts are horrible things and college is much more preferable. Why is this the case? If that’s the core conflict of the film, you have to sell me on the fact that college is the preferable option, or at least give me a legitimate reason for why the characters would believe such a thing. Does the family believe in pacifism? Is there some war going on that would put the son’s life at risk?
I also have a general problem with Elena’s relationship with her family. Whether or not you think her financially supporting a grown man and his family is the right thing to do, the problem because is that their relationship has no tension. The son will shamelessly ask and take the money his mother provides. The general contentment all parties in their roles makes it uninteresting to watch just about any scene between Elena and her family.
Contrast this with Vladimir’s trouble with his daughter, Katerina (Elena Lyadov), a hedonistic young woman who spurns her father, refusing to stay in contact with him even though he too is providing her with money. They have a genuine conflict of ideologies and when the two are forced to finally inhabit the same room and confront one another, the film gets its best scene where both characters honestly have to lay it all out on the table.
In contrast Elena and her family never get a moment that genuine or interesting. Elena goes onto do something absolutely reprehensible on just about every moral level imaginable for the sake of her family and I don’t think it’s justified from any perspective. Unlike Vladimir and Katerina, there’s never a genuine moment expressed in Elena’s family that shows any warmth, vibrancy or life. It’s just the cold exchange of currency.
Elena maintains the status quo. It feels cheap. Conflicts that don’t matter are resolved through drastic means that don’t come at a high enough cost. Perhaps the audience is supposed to feel cheated, but I still don’t think that justifies cheating on the storytelling. Elena jumps through a lot of hoops that fail to progress the film anywhere interesting beyond the cheap thrill of a plot twist without any weight. Much like many of its images, Elena is a film that is still, lifeless and inert.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing