A couple years back, Olivier Assayas' tender yet clear-eyed Summer Hours tracked the effects of globalism and plain old-fashioned emotional entropy on a band of French adult siblings as they dealt with a large inheritance of valuable furniture and art left behind by the late family matriarch. Old money, the kind that allows its children and grandchildren the luxury of not thinking much about it, informed the actions of that film's characters and, at least partially, allowed for a sustained mood of humanity and warmth.
Welcome to the bone-cold Russian flipside to all that.
Elena (Nadezhda Markina) is a former nurse in a late-in-life marriage to the emotionally distant Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov). He's got plenty of cash and a caustic, estranged adult daughter from a previous marriage. Elena, in turn, has a chronically unemployed son who spends a lot of time drinking beer and not cleaning up the shells from all the peanuts he consumes. He also has a wife, an underachieving and sullen teenage son of his own and a fresh, accidental toddler. Elena passes her state pension on to them and is actively lobbying for Vladimir to pay for her grandson's college education.
When Vladimir suffers a near-fatal heart attack, a pragmatic truce with his daughter turns into a potential inheritance nightmare for the easily manipulated, always-caretaking Elena and her mooching brood. And what happens next is a tense, domestic thriller that descends into darkness as the hardscrabble nurse turns desperate mercenary, a have-not who discovers that she'll do whatever it takes to get her fair share.
Director Andrei Zvyagintzev knows how to disrupt a family -- see his wickedly unhappy 2003 film The Return for some indelible proof -- and he controls everything and everyone here with the kind of reality-based precision that doesn't allow for silly surprise twists or fakery in the service of moving the plot toward a boiling point. If anything, this is the deep freeze, one the participants are too short-sighted to dress for properly. Meanwhile, Markina's quiet, submissive performance is the kind that creates empathy, then fear, then frustration without a lot of showing off -- a film's worth of emotional response from a subtly shifting array of mopey, worried facial expressions, the equivalent of walking a mile in someone else's exhausted shoes.
This one's going to be hard to find at your local multiplex. And by "hard to find" I mean impossible. Hunt down a nearby arthouse if you've got one, make the drive. But if you have to wait for DVD then first go ahead and whet your appetite for the gloom of it all with The Return and see why they like Zvyagnitzev so much at Cannes.