By Steve Greene | Criticwire May 17, 2012 at 11:14AM
It’s fitting that "Elena," the new Russian drama from Andrey Zvyagintsev, gains a wider release this particular week. At Cannes 2011, it premiered under the Un Certain Regard banner, where it eventually won a Special Grand Jury Prize. Now, one year later, with the 2012 edition of the festival underway, one of the best-reviewed festival films from the past 12 months opens as our Criticwire Pick of the Week.
"Elena" tells the story of the titular protagonist, one half of an elderly Russian couple living a quiet, comfortable lifestyle. When Elena’s husband Vladimir falls ill, the topic of the man’s significant inheritance prompts Elena to consider drastic measures in order to ensure the security of family from a previous marriage. Cine-Vue’s Patrick Gamble categorizes the film as "a pitch perfect example of European arthouse cinema." Even though his praise for the central performances (including Nadezhda Markina as Elena), Gamble gives much of the credit to Zyvagintsev’s steady hand, writing, "The languid and leisurely pace is positively brooding with tension, heightening the fragile relationships which bind all these characters together. These conflicts are beautifully understated, subtle and perfectly enunciated by his delicate direction." To put the struggle of the main character into a mainstream context, Indiewire's Eric Kohn described Elena as "one of sharpest agenda-driven onscreen female protagonists since Lisbeth Salander." From assorted reviews ranging from its premiere to its various replays at Sundance and elsewhere, Elena now has a "B+" average from Criticwire members.
The film opening this week with the highest volume of feedback is "Polisse," another Cannes 2011 alum. Examining the daily exploits of Paris' Child Protection Unit, French actress/director Maïwenn and co-writer Emmanuelle Bercot weave in the perspective of an outsider, a photographer sent to document the division. As Karina Longworth explains in LA Weekly, the film’s approach may surprise some audience members. "Two-thirds of this self-reflexive study of sex crime investigators is an intentional 'In the Loop'-style spoof on TV procedurals like 'Law and Order: SVU,'" Longworth writes, "and when it works, it's genuinely funny." However, Guy Lodge’s contention is that those light-hearted moments are a tad jarring up against more intense brushes with reality. He writes, "Searing, verité-inspired sequences sit oddly with the characters’ pettier personal dramas, and an indulgent 130 minutes, the combined effect is a little shapeless...proceedings really could begin and end at any point." After the latest wave of feedback at Tribeca, "Polisse" now sits at a firm "B" average.
Another generally positive entry on this week’s calendar is "Beyond the Black Rainbow," the film that inspired the most recent Criticwire survey. Panos Cosmatos’ directorial debut (currently at a "B" average) is a psychedelic maze of genre and plot, following the mental struggle of a young girl held against her will by a severely misguided therapist. In the words of The Film Stage’s Raffi Asdourian, "Trying to decipher the story is only half of the challenge with ["Beyond the Black Rainbow"], as Cosmatos is careful not to overly rely on the simplicity of his plot." Even though the film shows its heavy influences, Asdourian argues that Cosmatos establishes himself as "a brave and bold talent that deserves comparison to some of the films he so cherishes with homage."
While the film and its star continue to make headlines, "The Dictator" seems as polarizing among Criticwire members as it is among the general populace. The Playlist’s Kevin Jagernauth, in an attempt to extol the virtues of the film without destroying its many surprises, gives credit to the film’s overall sense of control and the creation of a neat, lean arc. “There is a lot that was clearly left on the cutting room floor (by our watch, the movie runs barely 90 minutes long and is all the better for it), but we're sure will make great Blu-ray extras," Jagernauth writes, adding, "It's to the benefit of the movie, which gets in and out in the perfect amount of time.” However, Moviepass’ Melissa Hanson counters that “there are also elements of crude humor that seemed to be watered down and don’t pack the punch they obviously intended.” Let the neverending Cohen Character Debate rage on.
Other notable films on the docket this week include “American Animal,” writer/director/star Matt D’Elia’s enjoyably unhinged look at slacker shut-ins, “Hysteria,” the period piece/vibrator origin story featuring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Hugh Dancy, and “Virginia,” the newest directorial effort from Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.