The publicity for Andrey Zvyagintsev’s noirish melodrama Elena uses the word “twist” to describe it, so we anticipate a shocking plot turn. It never arrives. The story of the title character (played by Nadezhda Markina), her rich but stingy older husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), Elena’s sponger son and his family, and Vladimir’s bitter daughter travels in a straight line, but that doesn’t lessen its tension nor dull its acid portrait of an unhappy marriage in contemporary Moscow.
Middle-aged Elena, an ex-nurse, lives with her former patient Vladimir in a stylish apartment, where they sleep in separate bedrooms. After she tends to his needs she has little to do other than visiting her adult son from a previous relationship, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), in his flat in a cheap housing block across the road from a pair of nuclear cooling towers. Sergey, his wife, and his teenage son seem to have no earthly occupation besides playing video games, drinking beer, and asking Elena for money, then moaning when they don’t get as much as they asked for.
Vladimir, a steely-eyed old man who regularly works out at the gym, has no pity on Elena’s no-good son and his family, even when she begs him to help finance her grandson’s schooling. He’s also cool to the idea of bailing out his daughter Katya (Yelena Lyadova), a remote, hostile presence. Katya introduces a new and nasty element to the story. We get the impression she’s not willing to sit around like Elena’s family waiting for money to drop down from the sky. She and her father understand each other.
As Elena makes her morning rounds the Philip Glass musical score starts up and all of a sudden things gets anxious. Director Zvyagintsev (The Return), working from a screenplay by Oleg Negin, imbues the scenario with a patient, bland-tempered tone — to match Elena’s docile poker face — and we learn at least one important lesson: Never announce the provisions of your will.