A celebrated Russian director widens his lens
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s new film — like his last one — is up for an Oscar
IN THE opening frames of Loveless, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s new film, the camera looks up at a denuded tree against a wintry sky. After this barren view come shots of a lifeless, snow-bound park. Yet when the action begins it is autumn, not winter; not on the outside, at least.
The freeze seems symbolic. In fact, says Mr Zvyagintsev, it was an accident. "Winter played a tragic role in our film," he says impishly — because the snow fell earlier than expected, disrupting the production schedule. As for the chilling opening shots, he took them on a whim, without knowing what to do with them. Still, he acknowledges, offering up interpretations even as he disavows them, others might infer that "political winter has dawned" or that the snows "cover over the traces" of wrongdoing. "We don’t just watch the films," he says; "the films watch us."
Loveless has been nominated for an Academy Award for best foreign-language film, as was Leviathan, Mr Zvyagintsev’s previous feature. Adapting the Book of Job to the Russian Arctic, Leviathan told the story of an ordinary man clinging to his home, in the face of a land-grab by corrupt local officials and the Orthodox church; resistance only worsens his plight. The church features in Loveless, too. Boris, one of the main characters, has a boss who is an Orthodox fundamentalist. Here, though, religion is a marginal theme. The state is more absent than corrupt. All the same, Loveless is as much an exposé as its predecessor.
Boris and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Zhenya, hate each other. They are selling their flat on the outskirts of Moscow, but cannot agree on how to dispose of their other joint asset: their 12-year-old son Alyosha, of whom neither wants custody. Alyosha overhears their bickering and runs away. It is a while before they notice. The searing sequence recalls The Return, Mr Zvyagintsev’s first film, in which children calamitously eavesdrop on the adult world.
In Loveless the police do next to nothing. Instead a search is launched by a group of volunteers. They are based on a real-life organisation, one of many that try to compensate for the Russian state’s callousness; Mr Zvyagintsev says the leader of the charity told him that the film’s main police officer seems a good man (he has the decency to admit that the coppers won’t help). The volunteers fan out across a beautiful, appalling landscape that evokes the work of Andrei Tarkovsky, one of Mr Zvyagintsev’s influences. But this is not a whodunnit. Alyosha is not the real quarry, nor are his parents the only culprits. A scene at the end hints at a wider scale. Wearing a Russian Olympic sweatshirt, Zhenya runs on a treadmill outside her new lover’s apartment, while inside he watches a report on the war in the Donbas.
To be or to show?
To viewers in the West, it might seem odd that the Russian authorities tolerate such an ultra-bleak view of their country. On the face of it Mr Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre is more subversive than The Death of Stalin, a British-made historical satire whose distribution licence was recently revoked. "Full-throttle censorship", Mr Zvyagintsev comments, adding fatalistically that speaking out about politics "is not going to make a difference". Despite receiving state funding, Leviathan was indeed denounced by posturing officials, especially for its portrayal of the church. But, says Alexander Rodnyansky, Mr Zvyagintsev’s producer, the only censorship imposed on his films has been the bleeping of swear words.
In Russia, though, his critiques are in some ways less risky than they seem in the West. The dysfunction he depicts is too commonplace to deny — and nobody does, not even Vladimir Putin, though he vows to deal with it. Direct censorship of the arts is rare; in any case Mr Zvyagintsev’s films are not popular enough to be threatening. Russian audiences, says Mr Rodnyansky, "don’t want you to tell them the truth". He compares the director to a doctor bearing unwanted bad news.
In Loveless his diagnosis goes beyond Russia. Mr Zvyagintsev’s films each have dominant visual motifs. Leviathan has a skeleton of a beached whale. In Elena — which asks how far a grandmother will go to raise the cash needed to bribe her grandson out of military conscription — mirrors are the main image, suggesting a society in which the only real moral constraint is conscience. In Loveless the motif is mobile phones. People are constantly checking them, or taking selfies to post online. "To show your life, or to live your life?" Mr Zvyagintsev summarises. "That’s really the huge question." Mobile phones, he thinks, have "revealed" human nature rather than changing it.
What emerges in Loveless is an emotional void, an atomised desolation not tritely attributable to Mr Putin or the Soviet legacy. The search for Alyosha leads to a crumbling Soviet sanatorium, the sort of Ozymandian ruin that litters the Russian countryside, monuments to a dead civilisation. But the answer isn’t there.