Elena ★★

A lot of my 2012 Wisconsin Film Festival was ascetic -- the cell in Grey Matter, bleak Quebec in Familiar Ground, the stripped-down planes of Frames. So stepping into Elena, which opens and spends half of its time in a lush Russian home, was a sensory rush -- a Xanadu of colors, textures, fabrics, surfaces, lights and shadows that made your eyes quiver. The Orpheum, mostly full for this closing-night selection, seemed to caught up in the same appreciative hush.

I'd judge, based on eavesdropping once the lights came up, that a lot of the appreciation had soured by movie's end. Elena -- sold in the fest guide as "Hitchcockian" -- is a tricky film in that despite strong performances, lovely classical filmmaking and a well-plotted script written with clear conviction, the end is deeply unsatisfying, a bleak plop.

When the movie opens, we think Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is the middle-aged live-in housekeeper for a retired plutocrat, handling his domestic chores and making her nut so she can provide money to her unemployed son and his young family -- whose apartment, which we visit with Elena, is infinitely shabbier but just as carefully set-dressed as the apartment. But then we upgrade our estimation of her role to housekeeper with benefits, and it's not until an hour in that we realize they are husband and wife.

That's admirably patient storytelling from director Andrei Zvyagintsev and screenwriter Oleg Negin, and the limbo of that relationship provides shifting vantages into those power dynamics -- the pair's biggest point of contention is whether he can excuse her son's failed adulthood and provide a modest-ish sum that would put her ne'er-do-well grandson in college rather than the army, or whether all his fortune will flow to his ingrate daughter from a prior marriage.

The problem is, by the time all these pieces have been arranged on the chessboard, they start to feel like pawns despite warm performances and sometimes deft characterization. Ultimately everyone in Elena's life is just a type, and when they're rich types and poor types, suddenly it becomes a polemic.

Except it's an anti-polemic -- the filmmakers to almost absurd lengths to dismantle any rooting interest and disdain every possible outcome, and that disdain works against the tension cultivated by Markina's long-take suspense setpiece in the second act. ("Hitchcockian" needn't simply mean suspenseful, but if not for this spell of anxiety in the middle passage, I don't know if there's much here that would suggest Hitchcock versus a hundred other directors of intimate tales.)

In crime fiction, money is a curse, especially if ill-gotten, but when everything is blighted, curses lose their potency, and the ending feels impotent -- intentionally so, but that doesn't make it any more fun for the audience. The movie is too well-crafted to call the ending a case of Zvyagintsev throwing his hands up about his story, but you do get the sense that he is throwing them up over the state of his country, challenging any dissatisfied audience to tell him just what shape they think justice should haven taken in this tale.

Dane 101, April 28, 2012