Someone once said that money can’t buy you love. But if Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film is any guide, it might just buy you hate. In his second feature since his award-winning 2003 debut The Return, Zvyagintsev examines money’s role in a late-in-life marriage. Vladimir and Elena are a couple of sixtysomething Muscovites who have a caring if unequal relationship. He is a rich, retired businessman whose wealth affords them a certain lifestyle; she is a housewife and maid who married up. Although Vladimir spoils his sullen adult daughter, he refuses to support his stepson’s family. He has a point: Elena’s lazy tippler son is permanently unemployed, and her grandson Sasha is a hoodlum. But when a bribe is needed to keep Sasha from conscription into the army, and Vladimir won’t help, Elena takes desperate measures.
Zvyagintsev has described Elena as “a pitiless look at human nature.” Its characters are viscerally driven by material needs that are so starkly sketched as to seem spiritual. Behind Vladimir’s unbending certainty that he is rich for a reason—and the film’s own narrative patina—lie the scars of the new Russian century. These qualities suffuse the film with the kind of moral urgency so often missing from Continental thrillers, and lend it the heft of parable (which DP Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography does much to sustain).
Elena is strongest when describing the liens that people place on each other’s lives in the name of love. Yet the film does not evoke the complex emotions that family and money stir up. It merely gestures in their direction, declaring the Russian soul sick with greed, like a doctor offering a diagnosis but no cure. Trafficking in Manichean imagery—a church contrasted with nuclear silos, a pious woman with a fiend ringed by fire—in order to question whether moral purity exists, Elena is stretched thin by its own contradictions and outsized ambitions.
Zvyagintsev’s gravest sin, though, may be the soundtrack. The liberal use of Philip Glass belies an unfortunate insensitivity to when dramatic tension slips into absurdity, never mind banality. Even so, the moods that the music conjures are more profound and nuanced than anything the drama alone is capable of.