Making movies in Russia is not easy. Just ask 54-year-old director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose acclaimed 2014 film Leviathan was publicly denounced by Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky as “anti-Russian”. As a result, he shot his new Moscow-set film, Loveless, with private financing from Russian billionaire Gleb Fetisov, as well as film companies in France and Germany, and the Dardenne Brothers’ Les Films du Fleuve in Belgium.
“It was my producer’s decision not to take government money,” Zvyagintsev explains. “I hope to continue making my films in Russia and I have no doubts it will happen. No one has stopped me from doing it, so there are no problems, really.”
The winner of the Jury Prize in Cannes and the Best Foreign Film prize at the Césars, Loveless was also nominated for a foreign-language Oscar, while locally, director Andrey Zvyagintsev took out the directing prize at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. A dark, heart-wrenching film influenced by Scenes from a Marriage (directed by one of his favourite filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman), it examines the ruthlessness of Russian society since the fall of communism, with Zvyagintsev once again collaborating on the screenplay with his regular co-writer, Oleg Negin.
Moscow couple Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are in the throes of a bitter divorce. Even though they hate each other, they remain living together while they sell their suburban Moscow apartment as they dream of a better life with new partners. Zhenya has found an older wealthy businessman and Boris has a young girlfriend who is already pregnant. When it emerges during a heated argument that neither of them wants to take their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), the 12-year-old overhears and runs away, devastated. The couple then must come together to try to find him, and they discover a stark indifference from the Russian authorities.
“You have to understand that in film we dramatise the family conflict so it’s like a metaphor,” Zvyagintsev notes. “I don't imagine that we can find a Russian family where both the mother and the father want to get rid of their child, to put him in an orphanage or whatever. We show this extreme circumstance to portray their hatred towards each other more deeply and to investigate this question more deeply. In recent years, people are selfish and looking for comfort in things that are not so important. They all want to be happy, like this female character who chooses happiness with her new man when the price of this happiness is that she ignores other very important connections with people.”
While he believes the film’s metaphor is relatable to other cultures — “This egoism exists everywhere; this perception of another person just as a tool to obtain your goals,” he says — the situation is particularly stark in Russia, he says.
“It’s quite obvious to me that this kind of tension is in the air and that this kind of aggressiveness towards each other is growing every year. After several years of the militarisation of our consciousness, many people in Russia see Europe as an enemy and America as an enemy, so this egotistical kind of consciousness is very widespread.”
Even so, he insists the film is not political like Leviathan, which focused on a corrupt mayor. “Leviathan addressed some very important issues, whereas Loveless is a lot more intimate, an individual story. You just hear about politics on the radio in the background, news reporting on the Battle of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine.”
Zvyagintsev also wanted to view a relationship from a different vantage point. “Tolstoy said after writing one of his novels that all great novels end with a wedding, but he wanted to see a novel that talks about what happens after the wedding. You see the marriage starting to collapse. It’s like a battlefield.”
So is Zvyagintsev drawing on his own life in Loveless? He blushes, emitting a playful grin. “I have four kids [aged from eight to 32] and I’ve had about three or four marriages, er, four or five — I don't remember! It was always a battle between two people, of course. Not in such a way as we show in this movie, but it all comes from my personal experience, and from my friends and people I know.”
As usual, the drama and trauma are etched in long silences. “It's a great gift of cinema that you can just listen to silence, to look into things more deeply, to think more deeply, to imagine things,” Zvyagintsev says. “In real life, it’s hard to obtain this kind of silence. For me personally, I haven’t watched television for eight years and this allows more silence in my life.”
Thursday 9 April, 12:00am on SBS (now streaming at SBS On Demand)
Russia, France, 2017
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Alexey Fateev
What's it about?
Zhenya and Boris are going through a vicious divorce marked by resentment, frustration and recriminations. Already embarking on new lives, each with a new partner, they are impatient to start again, to turn the page – even if it means threatening to abandon their 12-year-old son Alyosha. Until, after witnessing one of their fights, Alyosha disappears. From acclaimed director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, Elena, The Return).