Elena is a movie directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev based on the original screenplay by himself and Oleg Negin.
The protagonists in the story are a married couple, Vladimir and Elena. A conflict develops between them caused by Elena's desire to provide economic assistance to her son from a previous marriage and his family. It depicts a conflict between opposing social groups that are unable to understand or empathize with one another. Vladimir is a highly motivated self-made man, intelligent, rational, and supremely confident. Elena's son, on the other hand, shows no ambition, lives in squalor, and has no real hope for the future. When Vladimir refuses to accede to her requests for financial assistance she concocts a plan to commit a crime that she believes will ultimately solve her family's problems. The act of her killing her husband is the basis of the story.
Vladimir's apartment provides the central focus point in the movie. To reflect the character's personality and traits, we decided to make the apartment minimalist and pure, a nostalgic reference to the golden age of Danish design led by Arne Jacobson. It proved to be virtually impossible to find the place we had imagined, so we decided to build the apartment in the studio.
The idea behind the home's design was to create a sense of freedom and peace, an openness allowing every room in the apartment to be visible from every other room, and the apartment itself to be open to the city. This openness leaves no place for Elena to hide from her crime and so is an added horror for her. The rooms are all ascetic and masculine in their design and Elena only has one small room for herself. The walls are devoid of any decor, pictures, or wallpaper. The spartan frugality of the apartment made it very difficult for us to create a believable living environment, with its characteristic clutter and utility. We tried to achieve this sense by creating a realistic world in the windows. We used huge backdrops with trees behind the windows to achieve this credibility. We had full control over the atmosphere, rain, wind, and the position of the sun in the sky. We even had birds sitting on the branches of the trees.
Sets in the studio. You can notice difference between Vladimir's and Elena's apartments.
The key to achieving a realistic background was distance. We decided to place the backdrops as far as possible from the windows and to place some real objects in front of the background, which gave us objects to focus on and, because we could see these real objects moving in the wind, for example, we could get a more believable perspective. We found that a distance of ten meters was appropriate as that distance creates perfect parallax effect , with movement along the window close objects passed by faster then background ones. Naked trees stood between the background and the balcony, creating greater volume and depth. They also helped to show wind and air perspectives. We created an environment with water droplets suspended on the branches, a static tension that helped to create a sense of movement in a still shot. We were even able to capture the rising sun in the shot. The ambiance was so realistic that not only were movie viewers convinced that it was shot on location, guests to the studio couldn't understand how the set could be so true to life.
For the backdrop, I took a series of photographs which I then combined in a 270-degree panorama. The canvas was 70 meters by 10 meters. It was not possible to re-install the backdrop for different states of light, so we shot night scenes using the daytime backdrop. We chose a day with overcast conditions without any visible sunlight, and by lowering the amount of ambient light and placing lights in the windows, we achieved the desired effect.
The design of the apartment was based on the combination of simple volumes and complicated textures. That caused us to use veneers in the finishings of the set and furniture.
We used the following woods in the interior finishings:
Floor - American Walnut
Panels in the office - American Walnut
Bedroom panels and door - Daniella
Door plates and frames - Makassar
Sliding doors in the bathroom - a combination of aluminium and Lauro Preto
Sliding doors in the bedroom - Makassar
Doors of a cabinet (5 pieces) - Tineo
Console in the corridor - Lauro Preto
Pier glass - Black Rosewood Santos
Table - Black Rosewood Santos
Kitchen - Ofra
Kitchen Dresser - Lauro Preto
Elena's room is the only room with wallpaper. It is almost as though her room exists in a different world, a different social dimension connecting her to her son's apartment. The room is dominated by the mirror and photographs of her relatives. In contrast to other spaces in the apartment, the room is quite small and stuffy. It doesn't have enough light and the window is lost in the corner. The idea here was to show Elena's position in Vladimir's life. She lives separately, unequally, half wife, half servant. She lives alone with her memories of and love for her son.
Elena's son's family represents the invisible, fallen members of our society. Those whose lives are characterized by hopelessness. Their living environment is immediately recognizable by the expressive emerald pipes of the power plant presented in the context of the mass constructions of the 1980s. The set was not pre-conceived, it was simply put together by combining a series of observed real interiors. To realize this I visited all the friends I have living in appropriate similar apartments and built up a photo essay which we used to inform our design of the set. The set is intentionally cluttered despite the opportunity that we had to use moveable walls and increased room space in the interest of shooting. We intentionally limited the amount of available space, because doing so created the claustrophobic environment we were trying to depict. The interior style features a combination of varnished surfaces, veneered cabinets, narrowness, and clutter, which is a consequence of poverty. The diverse elements coalesce in an amalgam of browns and greens conveying a sense of decay and neglect. We constructed the set from used elements as much as possible. All the windows, doors, and accessories were taken from demolished buildings. Even the parquet wooden floors were second-hand. The contrast created by the combination of plastic and wood, and new and old objects that remained from previous generations allowed us to evoke the feeling of the present. The environment calls to our collective memory of the time of perestroika.
Creating the stark and clear contrast between the living spaces occupied by Elena and her husband and those occupied by her son's family was an essential element of the underlying meaning of the movie. Even at close range, the vast disparity in wealth and its consequent opportunities is a destructive characteristic of our modern world. We can see how these differences represent an ongoing tragedy, the inherent justice caused by the limitation of opportunity for some, and the easy luxury enjoyed by others. Although we don't condone the desperate killing of Vladimir, we can understand why it happened. The movie is making a social statement, calling for a change in our unfair social system.
Set backgrounds we shot in Moscow suburbs in Birulevo.
This production marks a shift in Zvyagintsev's style. Whereas his previous films were typically surreal, using metaphor and artistic devices to express meaning, with Elena we see an attempt to find those metaphors and create that meaning in a more mundane, real-life story. We are able to relate to the characters in a more authentic way, as they are like the people we know in our everyday lives, rather than being idealized representatives of thoughts, ideas, and feelings. All of Zvyagintsev's films feature a similar set of characters and circumstances, perhaps based on the director's own experiences, but in the case of Elena, these characters and circumstances are rendered in a context that is true to life.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev
Screenplay Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
DOP Mikhail Krichman
Production Designer Andrey Ponkratov
Set Decorator Maxim Korsakov
Props Alexandr Losovsky
Set Builders Sergey Kotov, Andrey Grachev
Text edited by Robert Kursten