Andrey Zyagintsev's 2003 The Return is one of the great lost films of the 2000s, a masterpiece that nobody ever talks about, and it was reason all by itself to be excited for the director's newest film, Elena (he made one feature in between the two, The Banishment, which I don't believe received U.S. distribution). Sure enough, Elena turns out to be a pretty great film by a pretty great cineaste, though it is also the work of a man who is not angling to repeat himself: besides the fact that they are both about family dynamics, and isn't that a broad subject, the two projects are really quite distinct from each other. Gone from this movie is any of The Return's haunted exterior photography and sense that the whole thing was a real-world fairytale, replaced by stuffy, geometrically oppressive interiors and a very physically immediate depiction of contemporary Moscow. Which is certainly not to say that Elena is any kind of failure, but it does lack the hair-raising sense that we have never seen a movie quite like this that makes The Return so special. In fact, we have seen a very many films like Elena, but it is worth seeing another one when it is done well. And Elena is done very damn well.

Elena herself, played by Nadezhda Markina in an effortless, film-dominating performance of incredible complexity and restraint that would make the whole thing worth watching even if every other single detail went completely wrong, is a former nurse married to fabulously wealthy businessman Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov), who keeps her in his gloriously affluent apartment in the best part of the city. When not keeping him company - what we see of their marriage suggests that it is friendly and mutually agreeable, but not really loving - Elena visits with her layabout son by a previous marriage, Sergey (Aleksey Rozin), with a patient, put-upon wife, Tatyana (Evgeniya Konushkina), an emotionally listless teenage son, Sasha (Igor Ogurtsov), and a baby. Being flat broke, Sergey relies on begging portions of Elena's allowance from Vladimir to get by, but with Sasha approaching 18, if the family can't bribe the boy's way into college, it's military service for sure. Elena promises to ask Vladimir for the money, but he is profoundly uninterested in financing Sergey's dissolute existence; he has his own daughter Katerina (Elena Lyadova) to support, on those special occasions when he wants to reward somebody who clearly dislikes him and just hangs around for the money.

Zyagintsev and Oleg Negin's story, you may have noticed, is almost totally devoid of admirable, or even humane characters: Elena herself and Tatyana are the only people who make it very far into the movie without revealing themselves as sort of awful, and to a large extent, Elena is the tale of how the title character proves to be just as mean of spirit as any of the people she's related to by blood or marriage. Which is as much to say: this isn't an especially pleasant movie, though it is engaging and exciting and even enjoyable in the way that watching extremely well-made films is enjoyable, regardless of the rancidity onscreen. At any rate, you can hardly say that the film doesn't earn it: it very plausibly demonstrates why everyone is obsessed with monetary gain and fiscal comfort, either to make sure they keep what they have, or to acquire what they lack, and if it were crass enough to present a moral lesson for our benefit, that lesson would undoubtedly be along the lines of "when people start to worry more about financial than family relationships, their souls die". Which is something you could certainly read into the film, of course - particularly its devastating final scene, where we find that everybody has learned the worst possible lesson from everything proceeding, and are apt to become worse, not better people in the future - but Zyagintsev doesn't lean on that reading, instead sort of floating it by, the natural side effect of spending just a bit less than two hours watching the behavior of these characters in their little fish bowls.

That's another thing the movie does extraordinarily well, and it's really just an extension of the same theme: establishing the spaces in which Elena and her men live, which are defined very unmistakably as class-based alternate worlds: Vladimir's apartment is almost comically beautiful, presented in the film's opening through a series of long static shots that give us enough time to stop being impressed by it; Sergey's ratty, Soviet leftover, just down the street from an incongruous urban forest out of which nuclear plant cooling towers look like mountains (it's an image so absurd even as it's horrifying that it's hard not to laugh in shock the first time it shows up), and Vladimir's place is filmed in depth-magnifying long takes that emphasise the openness and emptiness of the place in hushed grey and brown, Sergey's family dwells is a cramped, yellow cubbyhole in which the camera can barely squeeze in on top of all the people. The visual distinction between the two settings is the most striking thing about the film's imagery, and it serves as metaphor for the kind of people who live in each of them: chilly and mean versus hectic and desperate. Elena ends up serving to bridge these two disparate identities, to the advantage of nothing but the film's tragic arc.

This is the kind of family drama that gives family dramas a good name. It helps that the cast is uniformly great: Markina, favored by the script and in command of immaculate screen presence, is the one who'll burn herself into your brain, but to be honest, Smirnov is almost as good, given a far more opaque part to play, and though all of their children and grandchildren could so easily shade into caricatures along the "white trash on parade" scene in Million Dollar Baby, the actors and director all manage to keep the most over-the-top venality at bay; Lyadova in particular is honest-to-God frightening in her depiction of a genuine emotionally dead sociopath whose pleasure isn't even in taking her dad's money, but in letting him know, as she takes it, that money is all he's good for.

You will not leave feeling uplifted; you will not, I pray, leave feeling like you just peered into a mirror. But you will leave being quite blown away by the emotional and psychological potency of it, and the richness of its darkness. It is severe art house cinema of the most easily-parodied sort, but if this kind of movie didn't work like gangbusters, they wouldn't still be making them 50 years on.