There are four people in this interview: the Russian film-maker Andrei Zvyagintsev, his Ukrainian producer Alexander Rodnyansky, a translator and me. But there is another invisible presence too, that of Vladimir Putin. He may not have the room wired, but he is surely listening.
That is what happens when you make not only one of the best films of the century so far but one that shines an unforgiving spotlight on much that is wrong with contemporary Russia, as Zvyagintsev did with his 2014 film Leviathan. It earned him international acclaim and numerous awards, plus a special accolade: a withering review from the Russian minister of culture, who shortly afterwards was moved to outlaw films that “defile” the national culture. And yet Leviathan was made with the support of none other than the Russian ministry of culture.
For Zvyagintsev’s new film no such support was forthcoming. “We didn’t ask for funding, and no one really offered it,” the director notes matter-of-factly, possibly wryly.
We are sipping Russian tea far from the motherland, in a penthouse apartment overlooking Cannes’ Palais des Festivals, where Zvyagintsev’s new film Loveless premiered in 2017. He is a slight, soft-spoken and thoughtful figure with a complexion that is more Siberia than Riviera, while the US-based Ukrainian Rodnyansky is more manifestly open, bearish and affable.
In the new film too, Zvyagintsev is circumspect. Putin does not appear in Loveless as he did in Leviathan, where a framed photograph of the Russian president hung above the desk of a corrupt regional official. Yet there are more subtle elements of social critique lurking in Loveless, a devastating tale of parental neglect and loss set in the suburbs of Moscow that has been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The business of parents and children, of fathers and sons, is a recurrent theme in Russian art at least as far back as 19th-century novelist Ivan Turgenev, and Zvyagintsev, now 53, follows this grand tradition, not for the first time. A prodigal father’s reunion with his progeny was the subject of his eye-catching 2003 debut The Return, while both The Banishment (2007) and Leviathan centred on ruptured families. I wonder what keeps drawing Zvyagintsev back to this subject and in such potent fashion.
“There is nothing Freudian, really, about what I do,” Zvyagintsev asserts, before launching into a story that would surely have given Freud material for years of analysis. “I was four years old, and I was invited by my parents into the living room. My father was sitting on the sofa, and I realised there was some tension in the air. He grabbed me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes and said, ‘Andrei, your mother and I are separating. With whom do you want to live?’ And, I turned my head to my mother, who was standing there, and I said, ‘I want to live with my mum’. And I said that without any strong emotional reactions or without any tears. It was just like that.”
While not an actual scene from Loveless, it might as well be: stark and without any outward explosion of emotion, yet highly charged and intensely poignant. Alyosha, the child in Loveless, also says little but in one devastating early shot tells us everything we need to know with an agonised silent scream that haunts the rest of the picture.
“This theme travels with me from film to film because this relationship between parents and kids is kind of a battlefield and also, at the same time, a playground,” Zvyagintsev says. “It’s perfect scenery for bringing outwards the deep feelings of a person, because when we’re out socialising, of course, we all put on certain masks, but when we are at home we take them off, so it’s the best place to really see into people’s souls.”
Such scenery is placed front and centre in Loveless and scrutinised in unforgiving detail, but equally striking is the actual scenery, which seems eloquently to echo the frigid emotions of the characters. The film begins and ends with beautifully composed shots of snowy landscapes that recall the work of another Russian master, Andrei Tarkovsky; both men seem able to bring nature magically to life on screen in ways that evoke powerful emotions. Zvyagintsev has acknowledged Tarkovsky as a towering influence, but having grown up in Siberia, has ample memories of winter from his own childhood to draw on.
“I never thought of it before, but maybe these are some images from my past,” he tells me. “I remember my first winter in Moscow when I was quite young, and I realised that I did not see as much snow as I was used to in Novosibirsk. The snow in Moscow was a lot dirtier, and melted a lot faster. Minus 20 degrees in Moscow felt like minus 30 in Novosibirsk.”
The opening scenes of Loveless, in which the boy wanders through a frozen forest, initially give the film the eerie air of a gothic fairy tale, but what follows could not be more brutally realistic as Alyosha’s parents violently split and the boy becomes collateral damage. It is tempting to dismiss these parents as callous ogres — at best distracted, at worst criminally neglectful — yet Zvyagintsev takes pains to humanise them. We see them both in loving relationships — just not with each other or their son. “I never perceived them as monsters,” says the director, himself the father of four boys. “They’re just people, like all of us, it’s our reflection, and in some traits of their characters, I even saw myself. These stories come from personal experience and the stories of Oleg Negin, my co-author, and other people.”
What unfolds is at times difficult to watch and is enough to trouble the conscience of even the most doting parent. It’s a reaction that Zvyagintsev sought to provoke. “I hope [parents] will think more about this or feel the need to call their loved ones or hug them,” he says. “Then the film’s objective will be achieved.”
As potent as the central family drama is, however, it is hard not to see Alyosha’s tough, self-absorbed mother Zhenya as a surrogate for Mother Russia, especially in the film’s final shot, which shows her on a treadmill, running doggedly forwards yet making no progress, and wearing a tracksuit with one word emblazoned across it in capitals: RUSSIA.
Zvyagintsev, however, is not prepared to acknowledge this. “I didn’t have the objective to criticise the state in this film. It was not at all what I was going for. What touches on the politics is just a background to the things that are going on in the film,” he says, referring to the radio and TV news reports of the conflict in eastern Ukraine that are intermittently glimpsed in Loveless. “All this propaganda that you hear on the radio in the film is just the real background which we Russians lived in from 2012 to 2015 because the main action takes place during six days in the October of 2012. And, then we see the characters after several years in 2015 when, already, all these tragic events between Russia and Ukraine have happened. They’re just the real background that we experienced in those days.”
Of course. It is merely incidental background. It just happens to appear in a film about two warring parties who callously disregard the human cost of their actions. And that film happens to be made by a director known to be critical of the Russian political establishment and a producer who is a Ukrainian émigré. Make of it what you will.
‘Loveless’ is released in the UK on February 9 and in the US on February 16