“I’m a monster, aren’t I?” asks Zhenya, one half of the divorcing couple at the heart of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. “The most wonderful monster in the world,” her new lover replies. For his fifth feature, riding the wave of acclaim and controversy generated by Leviathan (2014), Zvyagintsev has crafted a domestic drama that explores the implications of this exchange — self-pity and hostility, the limits of compassion — in typically laconic and austere style. Loveless, which has just had its UK première at the BFI London Film Festival, is a landmark film in the career of Russia’s foremost auteur. But it will likely pose more questions than it answers.
The film tells the story of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), middle-class Muscovites in the middle of an acrimonious divorce, still nominally sharing their suburban apartment but each desperate to finally break away and begin new lives with new partners. They are oblivious to the effect their mutual enmity has on their withdrawn 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), until he disappears and throws their self-pity into sharp perspective. In conversation, Zvyagintsev himself is, like his film, both forensic and frustrating; thoughtful and articulate, he is guarded when it comes to his work.
Loveless wasn’t initially a Zvyagintsev original. “The initial impulse for this film came from [Ingmar] Bergman, from the idea that we could do a remake of Scenes from a Marriage,” he says, in reference to the Swedish maestro’s 1973 classic of class and divorce. Failing to acquire the rights, Zvyagintsev and writing partner Oleg Negin crafted a contemporary Russian take, whose protagonists, he admits, lacks the “education and dialogue” of the original.
That’s putting it lightly. I was shocked at just how unlikeable Boris and Zhenya were, all venom and rancour; it almost seemed an avant-garde statement to make the protagonists so contemptible. When Zhenya asks if she is a monster, I had my answer ready. Yet when I put this to Zvyagintsev, his response is one of typical equanimity: “Of course they provoke negative emotions. But they are absolutely normal people. They’re not monsters. These are unhappy people dreaming of happiness, dreaming of changing the obligations that keep them in place.”
“When lots of people tell you that you’ve made a film with obvious political inclinations, you protest, because you don’t want everything to be chalked up to that”
Sitting in on our interview, Alexander Rodyansky, Zvyagintsev’s long-time producer, reasons that there are no simple, “positive heroes” in his films. In Loveless, the most promising candidates are a volunteer search and rescue team who step into the vacuum left by an overstretched police force, their clarity of purpose in stark contrast to Boris and Zhenya. But there is no easy moral binary here, either: there is instead something unsettling about these volunteers, the vaguely military nature of their operation, the morbid sense that they need these family tragedies to give their lives meaning. One shot, of their orange fluorescent jackets fanning out through grey undergrowth, is more chilling than reassuring. “We’re not looking into their motives,” Zvyagintsev reasons. “In principle, we’re not even looking at them as people.”
Loveless offers nothing but cold comfort — too cold for some critics. After the grand metaphysical questioning of Leviathan, this is an act of spiritual contraction. Much like in their third film, Elena (2011), Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman have constructed a world of sleek but soulless interiors, harsh lighting and the desaturated, grey-brown colour palette of autumnal, urban Russia; the leaves have fallen but the snows are yet to arrive. There are swipes at modern life — Boris’s numbing office job, Zhenya’s Instagram obsession — but none of the genuine humour of Leviathan; if anything, taking aim at selfie culture seems beneath a director of this stature. This is a world described by Zhenya, not unreasonably, as “a miserable heap of shit.”
“Loveless is universal, that’s what I’ll say,” is Zvyagintsev’s response. “There’s no danger that anyone will fail to understand it.” And it’s true that at its heart is the same story he has always been telling: that of the confusion and helplessness provoked by a breakdown in family life. Leviathan ends with its hero’s home torn down in front of us, and the ruined building is a motif that arises more than once in Loveless — in each case testament to fragile domesticity brought to a violent end.
It is when I try to untangle this idea of the film as “universal” — as opposed, say, to “Russian” — that Zvyagintsev’s cautiousness returns. Leviathan drew the ire of Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky for its supposed “anti-Russianness”; conversely, it was lauded in the West as a critique of Putinist corruption. Both perspectives flew in the face of Zvyagintsev’s own repeated insistence that the film was a simple tale of human forbearance lifted from the Book of Job. Personally, I would call Zvyagintsev a “religious” filmmaker, adept at mixing concrete, quotidian detail with spiritual dread — this is a director, after all, who told this publication that the Bible contains “the entire knowledge of humankind about itself”.
“A real person lives a simple life. When he’s in the middle of a tragedy, he doesn’t think of himself as the product of some social cataclysm”
While Loveless has none of its predecessor’s Gogolian political gags — no one machine-guns a portrait of Brezhnev in this one — it is set to provoke the same Russocentric response, especially given its epilogue, in which Russian state television is broadcasting a twisted version of the Donbass conflict into characters’ homes and Zhenya sports a Team Russia Bosco Olympic tracksuit. Early (American) reviews have already toed the line: Variety’s Owen Gleiberman calls Loveless an “ominous” examination of “the crisis of empathy at [Russia’s] core”; Steven Zeitchik in the LA Times goes with the remarkably patronising, “A new film slyly critiques Russia (just don’t tell the director)”. (Perhaps these wide-eyed critics should refer back to Rodyansky’s own words on the matter: that Zvyagintsev’s films “are always about people, and not politicians, and that is why, by the way, politicians never like these movies.”)
I ask Zvyagintsev about his fatigue at dealing with such overcooked analyses. “When you make a film, you don’t think about how Americans will receive it. You live in Russia, and you can talk about yourself, about the things that you are witness to. That’s all. When lots of people ask you about the political context, tell you that you’ve made a film with obvious political inclinations, you protest without thinking, because you don’t want everything to be chalked up to that, you want expansion in the discussion.” Rodyansky chimes in: “In Andrey’s films, the characters always live in very concrete worlds. There are always real subjects on the radio, the television. There’s always a relationship to a concrete time and the main currents of that time.”
When I push him on what exactly it means to be a “universal” filmmaker, or even a “spiritual” one, Zvyagintsev retreats, but in the process offers an insight into his creative process. The press material for Loveless had included a Director’s Statement including comments about “our post-modern era” and “post-industrial society”; when I speak about the film in precisely those terms, Zvyagintsev objects: “Please, don’t think that I deal with themes of spirituality in post-modern society, or whatever you said. That’s your language, the language of a journalist. As a director I don’t think like that.”
So how does he set out to tell a story? “We say: “what if?” What if one person says this to another? What if their child heard it? How do we capture that space? It’s only details. Nothing thematic.” Then why do the same concerns recur? “It’s simply observation on life, and the fruit of that observation. With time, that observation gives you the hint that these are not just individual cases, that certain things recur, that there are states of mind, which in themselves may be a kind of universality.” And whence the Zvyagintsev/Krichman style — the crystalline framing, the slow pans and zooms, the orchestration of space? “The direction is towards the particular, the accuracy of the recreation of details: that is what allows anyone who watches to appreciate the sense of the work, though the sincerity, the honesty of its approach to human nature. If you try and tackle abstract problems, problems of society or the world as a whole, you’ll never get anything done. You won’t create anything.”
Whether this disavowal is convincing or not, it’s true that the real value in Zvyagintsev’s films comes from their ability to trace lines between the personal and the implacable; how unremarkable people react to forces that are beyond their reasoning. And the only way into that kind of story is to start from the human aspect, and work up. “By default, we don’t speak in [abstract] terms because we don’t have to,” is Zvyagintsev’s own conclusion. “It distances you from the texture, from the fruit and the blood, the real, the living. You can get lost in the words of philosophers, the world of your “post-modernism”. A real person lives a simple life. When he’s in the middle of a tragedy, he doesn’t think of himself as the product of some social cataclysm. He’s simply an unhappy person, and that’s all.”
Loveless will be released in the UK in early 2018.