Any Russian director should expect to be compared with Tarkovsky, not least one who works, as Andrey Zvyagintsev does, with abundant natural imagery – desolate trees, expanses of icy water. But his five films to date, including the 2003 debut, The Return, and the harrowing new drama, Loveless, really do approach the grandeur and urgency, both dramatic and spiritual, that we associate with the master. Zvyagintsev tends to harness his philosophical points to commentary about modern Russia – and the world in general – and it should not be interpreted as a slight on either film-maker that the description of him as “Tarkovsky with a plot” has now entered circulation.
We meet in the private room of a London members’ club. Across the table is his producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, who is bulky and bear-like where Zvyagintsev is slight, and emphatic in his statements where the director is quietly insistent. Zvyagintsev speaks through an interpreter. Every now and then, the producer quibbles over a word choice (was that “portal” or “gateway”?) and the interpreter concedes defeat. Each shot, edit and camera movement in Zvyagintsev’s films is precisely weighted, so why should a conversation be any different?
As we talk, the 53-year-old writer-director sketches a landscape in pencil. I ask whether it’s a storyboard for his next film, and he replies without needing to hear the question in his native tongue. “No, no,” he smiles. “A nervous habit.” What he has to be nervous about is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it’s a hangover from his last film, Leviathan, which caused consternation in high places back home. That film, a scathing portrait of governmental corruption and moral dereliction, featured a scene in which a group of friends used portraits of Russian leaders for target practice. Vladimir Putin is conspicuous by his absence. “It’s too early for the current ones,” says the man leading the shoot. “Let them ripen on the walls.” One Kremlin loyalist, Sergey Markov, described Leviathan as “an ideological justification for a genocide of the Russian people” and suggested that Zvyagintsev should apologise on his knees in Red Square.
Strangely, it was the only one of his films for which his team sought state funding. “That was intentional,” Rodnyansky says, leaning over. “Because of the challenging character of the movie, we wanted to protect it in advance with state money.” In fact, it simply meant that once it polarised Russian opinion and created an uproar, the film-makers were criticised more heavily for using state money. Zvyagintsev has not exactly played it safe since then. He threw his support behind the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who was jailed three times in 2017, most recently for organising “unsanctioned public rallies”. In a video posted online by Navalny’s supporters, the director called for free elections, asking Putin and his defenders: “What are you afraid of? An open political battle? It’s revolting to observe this show.” (Navalny has since been barred from standing by election officials.) Is it dangerous for Zvyagintsev to work in Russia now that he is recognised as a thorn in Putin’s side? “I don’t feel any danger,” he says calmly. Rodnyansky jumps in again: “Russia has its challenges and its demons, but it is also demonised itself in many ways.”
Any criticisms found in Loveless are mostly kept in the background – there are glimpses of propagandist news reporting on the Battle of Debaltseve in eastern Ukraine, and a radio report of election campaign embezzlement is briefly heard. In one scene, a bereft mother wears a tracksuit bearing the word “Russia” as she jogs on a treadmill, getting nowhere slowly. The film begins with a sullen 12-year-old boy, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), walking home from school through the woods. His red puffa jacket should set alarm bells ringing but it’s not a wolf that poses a threat to this Little Red Riding Hood – it’s his neglectful parents (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin), who are mired in an acrimonious divorce and far too busy setting up new lives with their lovers to notice at first when their child goes missing.
In the first 20 minutes there is one shot which epitomises the director’s skill at staging explosive emotional content. Devastating in its eloquence and concision, it relies for its power on the element of surprise, which made it especially galling when many reviewers described it in detail during their dispatches from Cannes last year. “We are very disappointed by that,” the producer sighs. “This shot is not allowed in any of the trailers, on Andrey’s command.” Zvyagintsev gives a shake of the head and says simply: “I don’t know why they did it.”
Despite this, and a ghastly UK poster campaign which shows the characters milling around in the woods as if in some Blair Witch knock-off, Loveless could be on course to be the most successful Russian release of all time. It has been rewarded amply on the international festival circuit and is now in the running for the Oscar for best foreign-language film, as Leviathan (a Golden Globe winner) was before it.
The director has had to contend with statuettes and silverware being thrust into his hands ever since he quit his career as an actor in Moscow to make The Return. That was the story of two teenage brothers whose lives are disrupted by the arrival home of their estranged father. The viewer learns very quickly with Zvyagintsev’s films to fear for the wellbeing of the children on screen – though he denies that this is a calculated move: “It happens that I deal in intimate family relationships. I like this word ‘battlefield’ to describe what happens there. People reveal themselves most completely in family life and the children are quite often the silent witnesses to this. I’m interested in what happens when the romanticism of a marriage fades or withers. The wedding dress will be in some cupboard or box. That’s when real life starts.”
After the father in The Return materialises suddenly, the boys ask their mother where he has come from. “He just came,” she says, offering no elaboration. The inverse happens in Loveless. Now it is the parents contemplating the mystery of the child, who effectively disappeared from their lives long before he vanished physically.
Alyosha’s mother confesses in the course of looking for him that she never wanted him in the first place, admonishing herself for not having aborted “it”, while the father may not have told his new partner that he even has a son. Only in the boy’s absence does he finally become visible to his parents. Religious readings of Zvyagintsev’s films are not uncommon, so I chance my arm and ask whether there is a Christ-like element to the boy: does he disappear so that others may learn through his suffering? “That’s excessive,” the film-maker says, stifling a laugh. “Let’s not go in that direction.”
Nor does he consider it especially significant that his own favourite film, L’Avventura, also concerns the search for a missing person. In both, though, it is the hunt itself, and the revelations and common humanity found along the way, that are of greater significance than any resolution.
Suitably, for someone who has described himself as “a pessimist with an optimistic outlook”, Zvyagintsev locates within the terrible crisis of Loveless shards of understanding and altruism, particularly in the work of the volunteers in orange hi-vis vests who persevere through the mist in the absence of any dedicated state services for tracing missing people. (The organisation is based on the Russian group Liza Alert, a voluntary search-and-rescue team founded in 2010.) “The characters do find themselves in the end, even if they are in disarray or they feel desperate,” the director points out. “What they have been searching for all along is themselves.”
After the interview, I ask if I can take the drawing Zvyagintsev has been working on throughout our conversation. He looks bashful. “This?” But he signs it happily and hands it over. It shows a row of tall trees extending into the distance beneath a stormy sky. The most interesting thing is that the clouds are drifting across the edge of the rectangular frame, which he has drawn around the landscape. Uncontainable life is spilling over, just as it does in his films.
Loveless is released on 9 February
This article appears in the 31 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Migration