Reflecting the universe
Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russian director of the much-lauded Leviathan, has a new film, Loveless, coming out. Noah Sneider talked to him about using film to find miracles in the minutiae
Take 27 went well, except for the boy who took a roundabout route through the schoolyard. Take 28 went out of the window because the school doors opened out of sync. After an unsatisfactory take 29, one exhausted teen had had enough: "What’s wrong? What is he trying to achieve?"
It was the last day of shooting on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless. He needed to corral a horde of extras through a short scene showing children heading home after class. Zvyagintsev’s voice was almost hoarse, and a final cut of the movie was due to be shown to the Cannes festival commission in a matter of days. A lesser director might have settled for something close enough.
Huddled over his monitor, Zvyagintsev kept shaking his head. During take 30, the clouds retreated, and took the shadows with them; before take 31, a few extras had unwisely unzipped their coats. In take 32 the kids spilled from the school in the wrong order. Take 33: a missing jacket. Take 34: the shadows, again.
Zvyagintsev is Russia’s most lauded film-maker, and his success is due in no small part to his obsessive, Tolstoyan attention to detail. In his hands, minutiae attain mystical force. As Anton Dolin, a prominent Russian film critic, puts it: "In a drop of water, he sees the reflection of the universe." While spending time on set earlier this year, I watched Zvyagintsev endlessly making tiny adjustments that few viewers or critics would notice: the pattern of leaves on the grass, or the arrangement of a flock of pigeons on the edge of a frame. "He’s always testing the strength of the details," says his director of photography, Mikhail Krichman. "He’s searching for the miracles that the scene will be built upon."
This uncompromising approach has served Zvyagintsev well. His first film, The Return, earned a Golden Lion at the Venice film festival. His second, Banishment, took home the Cannes prize for best actor; his third, Elena, a Cannes special jury prize. His fourth and latest, Leviathan, a searing account of the clash between the individual and the state in modern Russia, came out in 2014 and won an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for best foreign film, making it the first Russian film to take home the award since 1969.
The film’s portrayal of a corrupt small-town mayor who squeezes a local man out of his home in order to build a church also earned the outrage of Russian officialdom. Vladimir Medinsky, the culture minister, railed against its depiction of heavy-drinking, foul-mouthed Russians, and called its critique of the Russian Orthodox church "beyond all limits". Pro-government commentators branded it "anti-Russian" and accused Zvyagintsev of seeking favour in the West. While Zvyagintsev insisted the film took on universal themes, it was indeed an unforgettable indictment of the Russian system (which, through the Ministry of Culture, had partially financed the film), an epic statement that left you wondering what could possibly come next. Early signals suggest another hit. When announcing Loveless in the line-up for this year’s Cannes film festival, Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s general delegate, called the director "one of the major film-makers of recent years."
Zvyagintsev, an unassuming, bookish man of 53, makes for an unlikely standard bearer for Russian cinema. He grew up far from the bright lights, in a flat in Novosibirsk, Siberia. His father left home when he was young; he was brought up by his mother, a teacher. (Zvyagintsev turns to Friedrich Schiller to make sense of his relationship with his absent parent: "It’s not flesh and blood that make us fathers.") He studied acting at a theatrical institute and lost himself in stories, especially the classics of the 19th century. "He’s a creature of Russian literature, the literature of subtlety, precision and magic," says Aleksandr Rodnyansky, his long-time producer.
He arrived in Moscow in the mid-1980s to continue his studies and spent the early 1990s working instead as a janitor, sweeping courtyards. "I was a nobody." In his free time, he frequented Moscow’s Museum of Cinema, where he absorbed the work of European masters like Antonioni, Bergman and Bresson, and fell in love with film. "Those were the happiest years," he recalls. He began directing, offering himself to a furniture company looking to shoot short adverts. "I didn’t even know what instructions to give," he laughs. His advertising work eventually led to an invitation to shoot a series of shorts for television, which caught the eye of a producer who invited him to make a feature film.
His first two movies were long, mysterious dramas set in unidentifiable locations that drew instant comparisons to Andrei Tarkovsky. But his later films have taken a distinct turn toward social commentary, unfolding unmistakably in present-day Russia. "It was an unconscious movement, a need to respond to what was happening around me," Zvyagintsev told me. While he rarely wades into everyday politics, in recent years he has spoken out against creeping censorship in the arts and the politicised jailing of the Ukrainian director Oleg Sentsov. A preoccupation with ethical questions has come to define his work too, which Dolin calls "cinema of moral anxiety, cinema about moral dilemmas and moral choice."
But his films are more than mere philosophical puzzles: it is also a cinema of spiritual pursuit. As we talk over tea in a central Moscow café, Zvyagintsev invokes the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola to help explain his approach to film-making: "He had a fable about God giving all things their place. He told the cliff, you will hang here. And told the tiger, you will stand here. And said to the rock, you will stand here. To the river, you will flow here. And so on. When God came to man, he said, ‘You will eternally search for your place.’ It is this unique element of the human condition that contains the secret of man’s incredible possibilities, the possibilities of self-determination."
That search comes into sharpest focus within the confines of the home. "In society, a person acts, he takes off one mask after another," Zvyagintsev says. "Inside the family, he is completely naked, he is who he is." Loveless is about a couple whose relationship breaks down after more than a decade of marriage. During an argument, their 12-year-old son, Alyosha, goes missing, and a search ensues. "It’s a human tale, about how you can wake up one day and find yourself with nothing," Zvyagintsev says. "They are an unhappy couple in their own way. But people will recognise themselves in it, and I hope the film will cause them to wonder: what is happening with me?"