“World’s best film maker” isn’t an official title, not yet anyway. But if they made it an annual competition, like football’s Ballon d’Or, then Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (featured image) would get my vote right now.
Having secured his second London Film Festival Best Film win in a row late in 2017, he’s just landed his second consecutive Oscar nomination, as his latest film Loveless follows the success of 2015’s Leviathan. It’s a run of form that started with his debut The Return winning the Golden Lion at Venice back in 2003, and has included three prizes at Cannes for Elena, Leviathan and Loveless. In my book that puts Zvyagintsev up there with Michael Haneke and Paul Thomas Anderson. And Messi and Ronaldo.
His feat in securing two Oscar nominations in the Foreign Language category is all the more remarkable considering it’s the Russian government – or at least their Ministry of Culture – who put forward the country’s names and films for consideration and, like all competing nations, they’re only permitted to select one film per year from the entire national output. Reductive as this process must be for countries with relatively robust film industries, it’s even more striking if a particular film maker is directly critical of that particular government. And Andrey Zvyaginstev has never held back in that regard.
His last film Leviathan drew the ire of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky, who publicly denounced the internationally-acclaimed film as “anti-Russian”. Loveless is just as unflinching in its cold stare at the state of modern life there, so it’s intriguing that they put him forward for the Oscars again. You can’t imagine Putin sticking on Loveless for a relaxing night after, I don’t know, a weekend of wolf racing at the dacha.
“I’ve never heard Mr Putin himself comment on my films,” says Zvyagintsev when we meet in London while he’s star guest of the city’s increasingly well-attended Russian Film Festival. “Putin prefers to be silent on these things – but our Culture Minister is different and it’s clear he likes spiritual, religious films. He believes they will raise morale of the nation, and for all I know he is being very sincere about that. That’s his belief. If that is so, he thinks truth isn’t important and prefers an idealised vision. I prefer to show what’s really happening, and luckily that seems to resonate for some audiences in Russia and certainly abroad for many, too.”
But has he ever felt political interference from the Russian government? To my surprise, he almost laughs at this. “No, I haven’t felt political interference ever. I don’t even know what they’d do about that, how they’d try to influence me in what I make. I mean, Leviathan had state funding for 20 percent of its budget and they gave it a general release.
“Because there was criticism of the film and they said they’d ‘made a mistake’ giving us funding, we looked for other ways to fund our new film Loveless, as a French and German co-production as well as some private Russian money. But no one has ever tried to tell me what film to make.”
Loveless is the story of a couple, Boris and Zhenya, in the throes of a bitter divorce. They can’t stand each other anymore and are at breaking point still living together while trying to sell their apartment in a tower block in an austere Moscow suburb. They have a 12-year-old son, Alyosha, who is caught in the cross-fire of their arguments. One night, he hears what we assume is another in a series of vicious verbal assaults, this time escalating over the issue of which parent will take Alyosha with them. It’s a bit shocking to realise that, keen to embark on new lives, neither of them really want the boy.
It leads to one of the great shots in 21st century cinema, that of the boy, hiding in the dark of the bathroom, his face contorted into a silent, agonised scream.
Granted, it isn’t cheery, but it grips the viewer with a dread control. Why on earth would we, do we, watch such “monsters” – a word Zhenya later uses to describe herself – dig themselves deeper into the abyss?
Zvyagintsev rubs his thin stubble and breathes out. “You try to go as deep into human nature as possible and that depth reveals human beings not how they want to present themselves but how they really are. My job is to get behind the mask, so it’s as open and honest a look at people and their relations and their psyche, as possible. And maybe this uncompromising, honest, bitingly deep and profound search into the depths of the human psyche is what turns on the resonance all over. Maybe. That’s my theory.”
We are fascinated by Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), who works in an upmarket beauty spa, and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), who works in a soulless office run by a fundamentalist Christian who only employs family men. Zvyagintsev’s camera studies them so closely we can read their souls. Although we don’t know exactly why they’re divorcing, they’ve both already began new relationships, and Boris’ young new lover is heavily pregnant, while Zhenya has found satisfaction with a wealthy, yuppie type who owns a flashy apartment.
These glimpsed details of modern Russian life are fascinating – the borscht in the office canteen, the chatter of the beauty salon, the political debate on the car radio, the various decors and household appliances, even the supermarket shelves and apartment blocks.
“That’s good you notice these things,” brightens the director. “That’s how life is and I need to show this, after so many years of propaganda in movies, both from Russian films and from American movies. That’s what drives people further apart. I want people to see how it really is. Film is so powerful like that, and being truthful brings us closer. I am convinced sincerity and directness are appealing and makes audiences feel connected to the truth.”
If the set-up in Loveless is relentless, the film really kicks into gear when Alyosha goes missing while his parents are both out enjoying fleeting happiness and slithers of hope with their respective new lovers. It’s as if this child has disappeared into the cracks and the mechanism for recovering him is woefully inadequate, even brutal. Where Leviathan looked at corruption on a local level, Loveless obliquely examines the moral corruption of an entire society through its effects on this one tiny family.
The police admit they can’t help and suggest using a local volunteer group. Of course, the suggestion is: this happens all the time. Indeed, the volunteer group, led by Aleksey Fateev’s ruthlessly efficient Ivan, is a fascinating operation, chillingly familiar with the process. The sight of the hi-viz search party spreading through the reeds and winter branches of the local woodland is spectacular in its eeriness, the increasingly futile search a metaphor for something more existential.
“Of course, a situation like the loss of child is very profound,” concedes Zvyagintsev. “if we live in a way that our children have no value, if we allow them to get lost, what is the point of our life? What does that say about us?”
On a purely dramatic and cinematic level, the search allows the viewer even more of an insight into Russian society, more nooks and crannies, including a vast, decayed Soviet-era hotel in the middle of a forest, sequences that recall Tarkovsky, and a visit to Zhenya’s irascible mother in a the dark countryside on the road from Moscow to Kiev. But this missing persons procedural progresses with creeping dread.
Zvyagintsev’s films, it seems to me, are keenly aware of the moral shift in Russian society in dealing with the onslaught of capitalism. Now 53, the director, from Siberia, is perfectly positioned to remember the old days. “I’m very much a child of Communism and the Cold War. I was born in 1964, so I was in my early 20s when Gorbachev and Perestroika happened and the tempo of change was incredible. We were thrown into post-communism and into capitalism, like it or not.
“It was a huge leap, and some perished trying to make the jump, some managed it. But it was a test and a challenge that was very abrupt and harsh. We witnessed a total transformation of the fabric of society but more interesting to me was seeing the transformation of human nature. I remember feeling it was that which was more exciting to observe and that is what is certainly in my work. You know on reflection, and paradoxical as it may sound to some, I think of Soviet people as far more moral than the current Russians.”
It’s tempting to read all his work as a metaphor for this great change, the reverberations of which continue to be felt around the nation and, indeed, all of Europe. The Return is about a prodigal father taking his sons on a mysterious trip; Elena about a nouveau riche nurse marrying a wealthy tycoon to support her sprawling poor family; Leviathan is about a corrupt country mayor and a bishop plotting to evict a poor mechanic from his well-located shack. Generations clash, people chase money, better houses, new families. The characters always want more, yet every new dawn turns dark. They search for something that remains out of reach.
“You as a viewer or a critic might interpret the film as metaphor, but that’s not how I work as a filmmaker,” Zvyagintsev warns me. “What I know is that I am honest about my films, and my films are honest about reality. The stories themselves dictate the way that they should be told. The Return, blurred the borders of space and time, creating a special ethereal place for the action of the film, because the story itself was eternal. It was completely different with Elena, where the eternal story is made very contemporary with a specific time and place; the same was true for Leviathan, although a very different setting. This was not a question of any film maker’s ‘strategy’. I have an idea and the idea defines the way that the film should be made, so do the characters. In a certain sense, I understand that my films are still metaphors; but for me, they are attempts to comprehend people’s actions in a universal reality, not a social—or heaven help me, political—environment.”
How does this unease, this dissection of reality manifest itself in his thinking? “When I grew up – and my mother was a literature teacher in a high school – atheism was dominant, that God existed was burnt out of our minds and consciousness. But under that system, people were widely educated, What strikes me now is that ignorance is huge and prevalent, the education system has crumbled and everyone is obsessed with private happiness. Financial success has replaced everything.”
So, I ask, who are the Gods of Russia now? He snorts: “Mamon is the God. Not only in Russia – that has become universal. But in Russia, they believe in vodka, too.”
Zvyagintsev sometimes lets out an impish sense of humour. We talk about his four children aged 32 to 8 years old – “I haven’t lost any of them, yet” – and his shock at having to wear a tie to get into a posh London club at which he was the guest of honour at a festival reception. “I thought Russia was a secret society, but London is even more clandestine…”
We talk, too, of Russian interference in western elections, which he finds hard to believe. “Frankly I can’t imagine that a foreign country might influence events here in UK or in the US. But if it’s true, can you imagine what resources they’ve misdirecting and wasted on foreign countries rather than use it for the good of Russia itself? That at least is a typically Russian waste – the talents and resources you’d need to influence a foreign election, these alleged factories of fake news and trolls…
“You know, it suits the powers that be in Russia to blame other countries rather than look at ourselves. Understandably, you in the UK might worry how it affects your citizens but I can say it is more horrifying how it plays with Russian people. That is why I say only courageous and honest people are capable of watching my films and admitting that, ‘yes, this film is about me’. I sincerely believe that the courage to look at yourself is the fuel that’s needed to switch on the engine for change. And that’s exactly why the powers want to focus the blame abroad.”
Religion, he says, is on the rise in Russia, and a new puritanism is sweeping the nation. “People are desperate to believing in something – you know, after Communism, they haven’t found comfort in Capitalism, so they are turning to religion but they are making the rules up for themselves. It’s like a paganism, very judgemental and fundamental.”
And he reveals to me a law I didn’t know – that swearing is banned in Russian films. He suspects his film, Leviathan, might have something to do with the new law as it was introduced in 2014 and his film was one of the first to have to obey it, forcing him into a swift re-edit. Films with swearing have to bleep out the offending words or re-dub for public distribution. DVDs or books containing swear words are slapped with warning stickers on cellophane wrappers.
“They claim that it’s bad for the younger generation, a hypocrisy that children learn swear words from films rather than from their peers in the street,” he chuckles. Did it stop him? “Shit, no! There’s lots of swearing in Loveless. The version you see here in London or I showed in Cannes has swearing in the dialogue and of course in the subtitles but it is against the law in Russia, so I’m forced to edit out the swear words for cinemas. If you want to see the original version, you can watch it on the DVD at home – you know, it’s like alcohol in Tehran: you can’t buy it on the streets but you can drink at home and that’s like it is with swearing in Russia.”
And as no conversation about cinema these days can fail to mention the new movements of #metoo and #timesup, I put these before Zvyagintsev, too, even if I suspect it’s hardly a fair question to a film maker outside Hollywood’s current realignments. Indeed, he looks rather incredulous to be asked, stunned even.
“No, it is a fair question – why shouldn’t we think about this, of course? But you do realise that Russia is a very masculine, very sexist society?” And he pauses to consider his answer. “I think it will take time for the emergence of a strong feminine voice in Russia. In my films, I do try to feature very powerful female characters, such as Elena and Zhenya, who are capable of determining their own futures, no matter how ruthless they might have to be to achieve this. But theirs are perhaps not moral actions, so much as acts of survival.
“But as for harassment…”, he sighs. He and his interpreter have to have a bit of a chat about the meaning of the word. It seems to me, picking up on their gesticulations, as if there isn’t even an exact Russian translation for it. Finally, he ventures: “I have a feeling most people won’t even understand it as a problem, men or women. Sadly, perhaps, this is the normal barter, just how things are in Russia.”
A bit loveless, you mean? He seems surprised, pleasantly so. “Yes, absolutely, that’s part of it. It can be a loveless place.”
The black sense of humour returns. “Maybe Harvey Weinstein should move to Siberia. We accept all these people, you know: Gerard Depardieu, Weinstein…”
Loveless is out now in UK cinemas.