SIFF 2012: ‘Elena’ and ‘Hemel’ [Reviews]
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russian film Elena got significant recognition upon its Cannes release in 2011. Taking home the Special Jury Prize, the film was picked up by Zeitgeist Films, where it was released in the U.S. this week. Likewise, it plays during the first week of the Seattle International Film Festival (specific screenings below).
Plot-wise, the film follows Elena (Nadezhda Markina), as she tries to balance her new family with her old. Her degenerate son and his family are constantly asking for money. Her new husband, Vladimir (Andrei Smirnov), tries his hardest to free them of her son’s burdens.
Elena takes its time, slowing the pace considerably. There are a bunch of extended shots with plenty of silence. This doesn’t necessarily mean it has little to say – in fact, the silence itself tends to say a lot. However, the pace could easily wear on a lot of people, which I’ll admit happened to me.
There are some interesting juxtapositions going on, which ultimately save the film. The movie prides itself on being a psychological drama, but I think it has much more to say about family than it does psychology. Elena herself consumes the whole story, but I particularly liked the different family dynamics. Vladimir’s daughter, Katya, was the biggest standout, presenting a sarcastic and pessimistic viewpoint on family and money. She’s ultimately her father’s daughter.
On the other side, Elena’s family hits a lot of the same notes, but in a different way. The connection between her son and her isn’t quite as evident as the next generation. When we finally get to see the true results of his upbringing, the family portrait becomes a bit more horrifying. The bookends of the movie really illustrate what the movie is trying to achieve.
Elana, like pretty much any movie, isn’t for everyone. The take-home message is not easy to swallow, while the pacing is even more difficult. However, it’s also a movie that has the potential to spark some neat conversations. It’s a risk, but the reward is there.
Elena is showing at SIFF at the following times:
May 18 – 11:00 AM (AMC Pacific Place 11)
May 24 – 7:00 PM (AMC Pacific Place 11)
Before diving into this review, it’s important to explain that I didn’t know a single thing about the Dutch film Hemel beforehand. In fact, when I showed up to the theater, I thought I was seeing a completely different movie. That day’s schedule had to be tweaked, and in came Hemel, which tested the audience in a not-so-great way.
This character study bares all (in more ways than one) in terms of sex and what it means. It focuses primarily on one character named Hemel (Hannah Hoekstra), which translates ironically to Heaven in English. From the opening scene, we get a gonzo look into exactly what the film is going for – lots of sex, most of which is pretty repulsive.
The film is broken down into different stories, or episodes, which don’t really connect. They all show Hemel’s sexual escapades, from awkward to downright weird. The scenes set the way for a sad character in a depressing environment. The film doesn’t explore many other avenues, making it seem like it lacks plot and creativity. The tone is consistent, but that doesn’t make it easier to watch.
To the film’s credit, it never was aiming for easy-to-watch. They probably were looking for a raw, animalistic way of portraying meaningless and meaningful sex, and everything in between. Any way you look at it, the story relies too much on the rawness of the whole thing.
Despite a good performance by Hoekstra, Hemel became one of the tougher movies to sit through. I’ve seen some difficult movies, but this one wasn’t in the same category. I understand the message blended upbringing, civility, and sex, but, even with zero expectations, I don’t think it worked like it could have.
Hemel is showing at SIFF at the following times:
May 20 – 8:30 PM (SIFF Cinema Uptown)
May 23 – 4:00 PM (Harvard Exit)
May 30 – 9:30 PM (SIFF Cinema Uptown)