It’s not so much the banality of evil but the evil of banality in contemporary Russia that’s explored in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s newest feature, Elena. Using a framework borrowed from that obscure piece of Russian literature known as Crime and Punishment, the film hones the precision of understatement into a face-slapping critique of Russian oligarchy, whose apathetic corruption trickles down to infect every rung of society. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov is replaced by the titular anti-heroine, Elena (Nadezhda Markina), a retired nurse who shares a life with her second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), a wealthy retiree (whose name, at the risk of going out on a political limb, feels like a minor swipe at a more well-known Vladimir). Although they live in the same apartment, eat their meals, and even have sex together, the differences in their relative situations manifest themselves quickly. They sleep in separate beds, primarily so they can watch their separate televisions; Elena rides the bus, while Vladimir drives his luxury car; she does housework, while he works out in the gym and ogles younger women. These differences extend to their respective families as well: Elena’s son is an unemployed father of two, perpetually cash-strapped and unable to provide as good a life for his family as Vladimir provides Elena; Vladimir’s daughter, on the other hand, is a jaded party girl who shuns family, both her own and the potential of creating one, and lives off her father’s wealth (the film never reveals the source of Vladimir’s money).
Elena utilizes its first two sequences to contrast Elena and Vladimir’s existences, showing their daily routines in often mundane detail. In spite of these differences, their relationship functions because of a mutual appreciation for the other’s company, and an understanding that somewhat resembles love, although it’s much more of a social contract than a binding of souls. The contractual nature of their marriage is made evident as Vladimir lays on his eventual death bed, dictating to Elena of the terms of his will: she, who cares for him in his last days, will receive a stipend but not the requested money for her grandson’s college education. His daughter — who in juxtaposing scenes spits on her father’s existence to Elena only to then charms Vladimir with this very same bile — will receive everything else. It’s also no accident that she seems to resemble the younger, attractive women that Vladimir gazes on with lust. It is this injustice and the revelation of Elena’s status that provides the Dostoevskyian moment. Yet while Raskolnikov was driven mad by the visceral nature of his crime, Elena’s sin occurs in the ease of contemporary irony, as she combines her Soviet-financed nurse’s knowledge with Viagra, the pinnacle of modern capitalism, to put a figurative knife in Vladimir’s failing heart.
While Raskolnikov’s crime could find some justification in both the good he could have accomplished as a doctor and the inequality of tsarism and its revolutionary outcome, Zvyagintsev undercuts any vindication by transposing Vladimir’s shallow existence onto Elena’s family: the grandson is a violent thug who beats up homeless youths, reflecting Vladimir’s need to feel superior to his wife’s family. Ultimately, the upgrade in Elena’s provisions for her family provides no difference; they sit in front of the TV drinking beer in the crappy old apartment and in the nice new one just the same. As the film reminds us several times — most visibly through the opening and closing image of the leafless branch outside Elena’s window — the past will inevitably recur, worsening each time. The hollowness of the Soviet revolution is the hollowness of the Putinist oligarchy and its capitalism that does not deliver the promised results — at least the former had some ideal of fairness, however detached from reality it was. The only hint of a hopeful future is the enigmatic image of Elena’s infant grandchild alone in the center of Vladimir’s bed: has his death yielded new potential for this child, or is the baby destined to become simply his newest incarnation?