'Loveless': Andrey Zvyagintsev Reveals How the Anguish of Russia is in All of Us
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev's 'Loveless' is a bleak window into a vapid society devoid of empathy and meaning.
In 2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev made the definitive contemporary Russian film. At once, the ambitious and harrowing Leviathan is a Biblical tragedy, a classic Russian novel (in the vein of Dostoevsky), and a searing indictment of Russia's current political situation. In the film, a poor man from a remote fishing village engages in an uphill battle against eminent domain; in the end, he loses much more than his property to the state.
Needless to say, the Russian parliament, which had contributed state funds to the production of Leviathan, publicly denounced the film. That's why, at the film's press conference and in a private interview with No Film School, Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky revealed that they ventured outside the system to fund their next film, Loveless, which just premiered at Cannes.
"After the uproar that Leviathan caused in Russia, I made the conscious decision to make Loveless without any state financing or involvement," said Rodnyansky. "The Ministry of Culture of Russia went to great pains to emphasize how much they disliked Leviathan and their desire to avoid a repetition of this kind of 'mistake.' So Loveless is a European co-production between Russia, France, and Germany."
Incidentally, Loveless is less overtly political than Zvyagintsev's previous film. If Leviathan was an indictment of the state, Loveless can be seen as an indictment of the human condition in Russia.
The film begins as a mystery-procedural about a child who has gone missing, but it quickly reveals itself to be a window into the lost souls of a troubled country. On the eve of a rancorous divorce, Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) return from their respective lovers' apartments to find that their child, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), has disappeared. But just before he vanishes, Alyosha witnesses what no child should ever have to see: while hiding in the bathroom, his parents try to pawn him off on one another, each eager to be rid of the burden of parenting. After the fight, Zhenya takes a trip to the bathroom. When the door swings open, it reveals a young face frozen in a silent scream of despair well beyond its years.
In Loveless' Russia, capitalism has given way to corruption. Human relationships are transactional; the only thing to strive for is upward social mobility, which, when achieved, offers nothing in return but vapidity and narcissism. Propaganda about the conflict in the Ukraine blares from the television, but characters seem numb to destruction—it's everywhere already.
Despite their lack of empathy, Zvyagintsev expressed an affinity for his characters. "I love all the characters. I have no feelings of disgust or hatred towards them because they make it possible for the viewer to look deep inside into the soul of a person—all his hidden fears, problems, and challenges," he said.
"Their souls are like a battlefield," Zvyagintsev continued. "As the mother of Hamlet used to say in Shakespeare, 'I am looking into your soul, and all I see is darkness, darkness, darkness.'"
Though Loveless is fatalistic—the characters appear trapped in cycles of neglect and desperation—Zvyagintsev insisted that things aren't quite as bad as they seem. "I'm a pessimist who looks to the future optimistically," he said. "With these characters, it's hyperbole. Complete exaggeration. I dramatize things to make everything more powerful. But this problem of lack of love, people distanced from each other, and egotism does exist."
If Loveless portrays its characters' malaise as specific to Russian society, Zvyagintsev and Rodnyansky are quick to point out the universality of its selfie-taking immoralists.
"We are capturing Russian life, Russian society, and Russian anguish at the end of the day," said Rodnyansky. "But it's not specifically Russian. I believe this is very universal. Andrey, as an artist, is always investigating human nature without borders. It's always about people."
"We are just like you are," said Zvyagintsev.
In keeping with a desire to talk openly about Russia in a universal setting, Rodnyansky said many young filmmakers are shifting production outside state lines. This year, Rodnyansky ran the Kinotavr, the largest national film festival in Russia. Nine of 14 films in the competition slate were financed without state involvement. "A new generation of filmmakers is doing their best to find new business models in order to come up with better movies," he said.
Even a cursory read between the lines suggests that the director and producers' words are carefully chosen.
"If you saw Leviathan, you know where I stand vis-à-vis the powers that be," said Zvyagintsev.
Whether or not Zvyagintsev or Rodnyansky can speak their minds outright in a country where, like Alyosha, journalists disappear without a trace, movies are still possible. And watching Loveless, one thing is clear: the village that was tasked with raising this child has utterly failed him.