From Russia With Scorn

Loveless is a depressing look at human immutability

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

Opens Friday 9

Roxy Theatre

Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev doesn’t mince words or images to depict a morally bankrupt society. In Leviathan, the director portrayed the political world as a haven for corruption. The Russian middle class doesn’t fare much better in Loveless.

A couple going through an acrimonious divorce is forced to live under the same roof until they can unload their apartment. They have a kid, a sad boy no one pays attention to. Their disregard for the child is such that it takes them a day and a half to notice he has vanished. More out of obligation than genuine concern, the bickering duo must navigate the unsupportive local bureaucracy to get some help. Not that the disappearance puts a dent in their hatred for each other.

If you think this description is grim, just wait until you see the movie. From Zvyagintsev’s perspective, the pursuit of material riches has corrupted the country’s soul to the point that money is the only parameter of success and people willing to help are the exception. The filmmaker is thorough in his description of modern Russia’s problems and even takes a few swipes at Vladimir Putin while at it. But Zvyagintsev also balks at the idea this is only a Russian phenomenon. The detailed setting on screen is clearly specific to the filmmaker’s homeland, but unchecked capitalism can wither the soul no matter the setting.

I talked with the standoffish director last September at TIFF. At the interview he arrived with a translator and two burly men that each had a hundred pounds and a foot on me. Zvyagintsev introduced one of them as his producer. The other one remained silent, observing unnervingly.

How pervasive is the malaise Loveless depicts in  Russia?

Egotism, selfishness are not necessarily a Russian thing. You may get that perception because it appears on the film in concentrated form.

Loveless is very successful at sustaining feelings of dread, anger and sadness over the length of the movie. Was this taxing on your cast and crew when shooting the film?

Not at all. On set we kept a very upbeat, happy atmosphere. The result is achieved through the mastery of the actors. The movie is a tragedy in which we using the motions of oppression, of heaviness to get our point across, bit by bit.

Considering Loveless and your previous film, Leviathan, I have the impression you don’t believe much in personal change. No matter what the characters have to endure, they seem to go back to a default position. Do you agree with this assessment?

It’s true. The inertia of the human being is emphasized by the characters’ struggle to find some drive that inspires them to change. I believe the overwhelming majority of people are inert. Going into the end of the film, an audience may expect that the characters may evolve, but this doesn’t happen.

Do you believe film has the power to elicit change?

Here is the thing: you identify yourself with the main characters, but realize their capacity for change is very minimal. Do you change in spite of or because of them? What we are trying to do here is to make people work on themselves after watching the movie.

Because of your presence in film festivals, you have become the only Russian filmmaker we get to see regularly in North America. Is this an advantage, a burden or something else?

It’s not a burden, I don’t think I have any “representative of Russia” obligations. It’s very sad this is the state of affairs. It’s very difficult in Russia to obtain independent financing to make cinema. We had a very small window to shoot Loveless: We had the original idea in the summer of 2015, the movie was in Cannes by 2017, and two days after the festival, it opened in Russia.

What is the biggest misconception about your work?

People in my country think the main character in Leviathan hates Russia and doesn’t have God in his heart. That’s a total misreading. It’s a common problem with contemporary cinema in Russia. It’s painful to see, and a portion of the public thinks these movies are made with an international audience in mind.