Family Ties that Break and Bind in Elena and The Color Wheel


Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Elena is a tale of two apartments. The film is bookended by shots that look in, covetously, on a spacious chrome, glass, and marble luxury flat that might be anywhere in prosperous Western Europe. In between, it commutes to a cramped unit in some exhausted-looking, distinctly Soviet-vintage apartment block with a view of a nuclear plant. Central to the movie is the distance, physical and psychological, and the mutual resentment, that exists between these spaces.

Rising early in a tidy chamber in that pristine flat, Elena (Nadezhda Markina) wakes the master of the house, Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), before dutifully turning down his sheets and preparing his breakfast. He’s gaunt, looking close to 70; she’s some 20 years younger, with a stout peasant’s build. Their behavior is too intimate for master and servant—they briskly kiss on the lips—too formal for husband and wife. We’ll learn later that they met in a hospital when she was his nurse; now he pays the bills, she cleans the spills, a morganatic marriage nearly a century after the October Revolution.

Visiting her family, Elena takes a long train ride to the sagging workers’ houses—Philip Glass’s thriller violins suggest violent undercurrents already at work—where her jobless son from a previous marriage, Sergey (Alexey Rozin), lives with his haphazardly looked-after family. Sergey wants money from Vladimir to pay a bribe in order to get his unambitious eldest, 17-year-old Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), into college and keep him out of the military. When Elena asks, Vladimir announces that he has no intention of supporting her extended family. This domestic loggerheads comes to a crisis when a health scare inspires Vladimir to codify his intentions in a will, while also putting himself, weakened by illness, at the mercy of Elena, once again his nurse.

With taciturn camerawork and a scalpel-like precision dissecting class that recalls Claude Chabrol, Zvyagintsev’s film observes Elena making the decision of which family to be loyal to and how to assert her newfound power. In a few shrewd scenes, Elena displays its central couple, together and separately, playing their various roles, with their various contradictory loyalties. Elena is wife and chattel, Christian, mother, grandmother—and hated stepmother to Vladimir’s hedonistic only daughter from a previous marriage, Katerina (Elena Lyadova). Vladimir is shown as a tender husband, within his terms. He exhibits a Lothario’s instincts, despite his failing flesh, and is a reluctantly adoring father. Vladimir impresses the importance of raising a family on Katerina, a convinced nihilist. Everybody does it, he says. “Shit’s gotta be tasty. A million flies can’t be wrong,” she replies. Besides, she adds, don’t you know the world is ending?

This proposition hangs over the troubling conclusion of Elena, a litany of gathering omens: a dead horse at a railroad crossing, a slum power outage that sparks a spontaneous outbreak of hooligan violence. All of this builds into the film’s last image, Elena’s family finally welcomed into Vladimir’s apartment, as the cautious, controlling, abstemious bourgeoisie are overtaken by the heedlessly fertile lower orders, the temporary inheritors of a terribly weary earth.

Like Elena, Alex Ross Perry’s The Color Wheel deals in binding family ties and the sterility of the comfortable classes, though in a distinctly different register.

New Yorker Perry’s second feature, shot in 16mm black-and-white, is an offhand, picturesque road-trip movie with a mock-epic Northeastern itinerary. It’s also a cage-match brother-and-sister act, revolving around the complimentary relationship between JR (Carlen Altman), a defiantly unemployable broadcast-journalism major, and her younger brother, Colin (Alex Ross Perry).

JR recruits Colin, who still lives with their parents in Pennsylvania, to come along as backup while she clears her belongings out of the Boston home of professor and ex-lover Neil (Bob Byington). It is at first a mystery to both Colin and the viewer as to why he has been selected for this task, for he and his sister have a habit of saying to one another, point-blank, the cruelest things that they can think of. “You make me, Mom and Dad, and my girlfriend sick to our stomachs every time you come up in conversation,” is one of Colin’s characteristic tossed-off lines.

Gloves-off verbal abuse is, it turns out, the mother tongue in The Color Wheel‘s world; JR and Colin’s bickering subsides only when they team up against a common enemy—that snotty professor, the guests at a yuppie house party, or the Puritanical Yankee motel owner who only rents to married couples and insists on seeing JR and Colin kiss.

Throughout The Color Wheel, JR and Colin let themselves be pushed, giggling nervously, toward the threshold between sibling and conjugal intimacy—jokes are their safety-net way of talking about hang-ups. The Color Wheel is a sticky handcrafted movie, built around characters afflicted with something like “postgraduate delirium,” to use a phrase from Tiny Furniture. As such, it bears a superficial resemblance to a whole spate of recent mealy-mouthed twentysomething-drift indies, of which Lena Dunham’s movie is only the breakthrough example. This resemblance is strictly superficial, however. The Color Wheel’s dialogue is delivered in blistering fusillades, and the characters are far too nasty and tetchy to ingratiate themselves.

Instead of cautiously toeing the realist line, 26-year-old Perry takes a caricaturist’s approach. The Color Wheel is a movie that’s consistently unafraid to get confrontational and plain weird, with Colin’s is-it-or-isn’t-it-ironic racism, abrupt smothering close-ups, and scenes pushed past the boundaries of plausible motivation until they nosedive into absurdity. Like Howard Hawks’s Twentieth Century, it’s a travelogue movie about a couple whose impossible, porcupine personalities leave them safe, finally, for nobody’s company but each other’s.