Two recent Russian films, Twilight Portrait and Elena, convey a piece of the social nightmare that contemporary Russians inhabit. Neither film is overtly political or directly critiques Putin and his cohort; the nightmare is evoked more through atmosphere, tone, and familial dynamics than through an exploration of the structure of social institutions.
Twilight Portrait (not released in the United States) is a riveting, low-budget film, the first directed by Angelina Nikonova. It depicts a brutish, indifferent, violent world that envelops all the characters that pass through it. At the film’s center is the daughter of a rich businessman, Marina (a striking performance by Olga Dykhovichnaya, who shares responsibility for its script), a remote, bored, burnt-out social worker who works with familial abuse.
After depicting a squalid, alienated sexual assignation between Marina and her husband’s partner, Nikonova follows her hitchhiking (her pocketbook has been stolen), during which she is gang-raped by a group of Neanderthal policemen whose main occupation seems to be looking for women to assault. The film then takes an unpredictable, perverse turn: Marina chooses to become involved with the biggest and most brutish policeman, moving into his confined, shabby, drug- and alcohol-filled apartment and becoming his sex slave. There are a number possible explanations offered for her actions—pathological masochism, revenge, a search for redemption—but the exploration of the reasons for her often affecting behavior is much less interesting than the depiction of a society where apathy, resentment, greed, and barbarism rule.
Elena, the third film directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev (The Return), is a better film, with a more controlled and spare manner. It’s a family drama set in Putin’s Moscow, where a rich couple live sumptuously in the city center in a large, spotless apartment with all the modern conveniences, while their poor relatives inhabit a decaying, graffiti-covered Brezhnev-era complex on the scrubby outskirts of the city. It’s a place where drunken skinhead gangs fight, electricity is irregular, garbage goes uncollected, and nuclear power dynamos ominously loom.
Nadezhda Markina plays the eponymous Elena, a heavy-set, stolid, gentle, late-middle-aged version of the archetypal Russian woman, whom she embodies without a false note. A former hospital nurse, Elena is now married to a past patient, a dour, solitary, elderly business tycoon named Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov). They sleep in separate rooms, Vladimir watching sports in one, Elena watching reality shows in the other, in an apartment that is both affluent and lifeless. Their relationship is a cordial, but lacks any sign of emotional connection or passion. Elena is a very competent nurse, housekeeper, and sexual companion with much better benefits than she ever received at the hospital. She has become part of the moneyed class, but acts as no more than a high-paid, trusted employee.
Elena’s passion is reserved for her unemployed lout of a son, Sergei (Aleksey Rozin), and his two children. He spends his days drinking beer and playing videogames in his claustrophobic apartment, supported by Elena’s pension. Her heart’s desire is to have Vladimir give her enough money to keep her sullen, wastrel grandson, Sasha, out of the army by bribing the authorities so he can enter college. But Vladimir is hesitant about giving more money to her family, which he finds repellent.
Elena reacts to Vladimir’s wavering about the money with resentment. She badmouths Vladimir’s unmarried daughter, Katya (Elena Lyadova), whom he supports financially though she almost never visits and is only interested, in Vladimir’s words, in “the pleasurable things of life.” We meet her only briefly when she visits Vladimir in the hospital after he has a severe heart attack—a striking scene that conveys the nihilistic sickness and absurdity of her life. In a conventional paternal manner, Vladimir prods her to have a family. Her (characteristic) response is, “don’t you know the world is ending?”
Despite their different temperaments and lifestyles, Katya and her father genuinely connect. He enjoys her bitter wit and sophistication. Katya is able to arouse warm feelings from this cold man, and, in her cynical way, she has affection for him. It’s clear that most of his money will be left to her in a will he has yet to codify.
When a recovering but weak Vladimir finally tells Elena that he will not give her the money for Sasha, the film takes a chilling turn, reinforced by Philip Glass’s thriller violin score. Moved by commitment to family, and a barely articulated antipathy for those who have money, Elena decides to poison the bedridden Vladimir. The transformation of this seemingly sweet, ordinary woman into a calculating murderess occurs in a series beautifully conceived and wordless scenes, with a great deal of agonizing on Elena’s part.
Once the deed is done, she efficiently if nervously rifles through Vladimir’s safe, burning papers that provide evidence he is writing a new will that will only give her an annuity. At the funeral, Elena breaks out in uncontrolled sobbing. Is it the performance of a grieving wife or a residue of her religious believer’s guilt—or both?
Zvyagintsev directs the film with long slow takes, and a camera that lingers over rooms and objects that capture the class character of their inhabitants and owners. Though there is a somewhat surreal accident at a railway crossing with a dead white horse, the film is realist and so economical that not a screen moment is wasted. There is little back-story; we don’t know what Vladimir did to make his fortune, or much about his first marriage.
At the film’s conclusion, Elena’s family is living, or squatting, in Vladimir’s flat, though its ownership hasn’t been resolved with Katya. Sergei isn’t working, but he already has plans for renovating it. The TV blares with nonsensical programs, as it does throughout the film, even though nobody is watching it. Elena is happy in the bosom of her dysfunctional family, and whatever guilt she had about the murder seems to have disappeared.
Zvyagintsev avoids the melodramatic, and has no interest in choosing sides—everyone seems culpable. There are no characters that elicit our sympathy. They might not be monsters, but not one of the characters believes in anything beyond money, greed, bodily pleasures, and, in their more human moments, blood connections.
In both Elena and Twilight Portrait, we witness a morally bankrupt and spiritually dead Russia. The directors of these films are not nihilists, but they have created a Russia populated by barbarians and terminal melancholics. If this vision is even partly true, it helps to explain why the repressive, corrupt, materialistic Putin remains in power—why dissent has not yet gained real traction, and hope for change lies somewhere in the distant future.
Leonard Quart is the coauthor of American Film and Society Since 1945 and a contributing editor at Cineaste.
Image: Olga Dykhovichnaya in Twilight Portrait