Ksenija Pavlovic interviews acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, a fierce critic of Putin, regarding his take on the modern day Russia and his latest film Loveless, a contender for the 2018 Oscars in the foreign language category.
This year in Cannes, during my two-week hiatus from the White House press corps, I met an acclaimed Russian filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev. His heart-wrenching drama Loveless, (Nelyubov), won a Cannes jury prize in the competition, and despite an active opposition campaign in Russia to block the nomination of Loveless for the 2018 Oscars, Zvyagintsve’s movie is now a contender in the foreign language category.
An independent film director, who did not want to take money from the Russian government to finance his movie, took Cannes international film critics with Loveless by storm. His previous, anti-Putin movie Leviathan was nominated for the Oscars and it won Best Screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival, Best Film at the London Film Festival, and a Golden Globe for Best Foreign-Language Film.
The venue where our interview is taking place is small, with old white paint on the walls and Mark Rothko paintings hanging on them. Suddenly, I feel like a protagonist in one of Zvyagintsev’s movies. As he enters the room in a black shirt and dark jeans, he brings with him a sense of immediacy. His translator is also present, as Andrey does not speak a word of English.
Yet, as he starts talking, Zvyagintsev has such a strong presence that I get the impression that I understand everything he says, or rather, that the pull of his words is so strong that it makes me think I understand each and every one of them. Perhaps that’s the secret of his movies, they contain emotional truth, and when the filmmaker has a capacity to translate the emotional truth to the silver screen, the barriers of nationality and language disappear.
Loveless revolves around broken relationships and human disconnect. It’s a poetic story of loss, neglect, and a vicious divorce battle between two people, Boris and Zhenya, who once loved each other. As the backdrop to the main story, Zvyangustev rolls out a political and social commentary on today’s Russia under Putin.
For The Pavlovic Today, Zvyagintsev talks about his personal philosophy in making movies, why he does not believe in happy endings and the future of Russia.
Your previous film Leviathan, the Russian Minister of Culture proclaimed anti-Russian. Did you take that as a challenge to make another movie, Loveless, that would maybe even be more political, in a certain sense?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I don’t see it that way. I was making a film about something very intimate, something very deep, about the relationship. And the politics that you hear on the radio, on the TV, is just the background.
At one point we see the main heroine, Zhenya, wearing this huge word “Russia” on her chest. I know you don’t like to talk about Russian politics in your interviews, but it’s hard not to see it.
Andrey Zvyagintsev: So, when we last see the main character Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), it’s February of 2015, six months before this huge conflict happened. It’s just before the Olympics. And before the Olympics, people used to wear this “Russia tribute”. There was this big collection of sweatshirts with the word Russia on them. So I’d like to say that there’s no more to it than that, but…(laughs)
A very famous Russian author, Nikolai Gogol, 19th-century author, has this book called Dead Souls, and it ends with a scene with the main character on a carriage with horses, because it was a long time ago, and he goes away from his native town. And Nikolai Gogol writes, “Oh Russia, where do you go?”, and then he says there is no answer to that. So there is no answer given. This scene of my main female character who is in this running gear, with Russia on her chest, it’s like my small hello to Mr. Gogol. And still, there is no answer to where Russia is going.
Your film won the Jury Prize in Cannes and was also well received by the public. What were you thinking before the world movie premiere in Cannes?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I could say that I was a bit nervous, but you also have to understand that the main impression has already passed you when you’re already here in Cannes. If your movie has entered in the Competition it’s already a victory for you, and then it’s just a matter of faith or destiny if it wins a prize or not.
I am always more nervous when I meet with journalists like you and when you’re on the red carpet, and there are all the photographers and you turn your right side and left side. When I show the movie to the press the day before the premiere, I get even more nervous because you are very demanding people. And if it goes well, and it went well this time, then I expect that for the public it will go well also.
The concept of love in your filmmaking, does it always have to be so tragic? Is it in any way informed by the Russian literature which, as you know, always ends in some form of tragedy. If you consider Dostoevsky and Pushkin even, what would you say is your relationship to the “happy ending”?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: So. There was the film in the Competition called the Happy End, but I’m pretty sure the director was ironic about it. And I’m pretty sure there’ll be no happy ending in this film so it’s a more of contradiction to what will really happen in the movie.
Leo Tolstoy has a book where he says that usually, all plots end up with a wedding scene but then he said ‘I wish someone would write about what happens after the wedding’.
So for me, it’s also very interesting that period in a relationship when you are not so much in love anymore, when love for you becomes work, and you try to work on yourself and on your relationship. And this is kind of a crisis when thirteen years have passed and people sometimes look at each other and ask why they even got together 12 years ago. And this is what interests and excites me and we have a very tragic end in our story but it doesn’t necessarily always happen this way.
But I just wanted to say in this story that if people lost a child and presumably they would’ve found him and got back together, it would’ve been very obvious and not very interesting.
You’re often compared to Andrei Tarkovsky, one of the greatest filmmakers, both in Russia and around the world. How do you feel about that comparison? Do you consider it to be a great honor or you think it puts unnecessary pressure on you?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I don’t remember when I said anything about or say much about Tarkovsky. He puts a certain pressure on all Russian film directors and some try to escape and some try to repeat after him. But it wasn’t he who turned my life upside down. It was a film Andrei Rublev, the one that he named and it was in this very moment that I changed completely and I realized that I am in love with cinema and that through the language of cinema you can transmit so many ideas that you cannot say or understand verbally. This is where my passion for cinema comes from. Of course, Tarkovsky’s movies are Olympic gods to me, they’re some of my favorites.
Can you say that after Elena, Loveless could become a kind of a trilogy, could you see them as such?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: It wasn’t my idea to make a trilogy, it is just probably easier for others to see it this way from the outside. But it wasn’t my intention. Leviathan just came into existence because the producer picked this script from four different variants, probably because this was one of the least expensive ones. But it wasn’t my strategy to shoot a trilogy. Probably what makes these three movies the main topic is just my perspective on modern-day Russia, but that’s the only thing that brings them together.
Were you ever tempted to make a film outside Russia?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: I’m afraid it’d be a very uncertain view on things because I don’t know life outside of Russia. I am 53 and have lived in Russia all my life and speak only the Russian language. Of course, this is not a big honor for me – I wish I could speak more languages, including English, but I don’t know anything about life outside Russia so it’d be some kind of exported variant of truth.
Probably it would be possible, sometime in the future, if our Minister of Culture decides to be in his office forever and I would have no other possibility than to learn English or French and to shoot films outside Russia. In that case, that would probably happen then.
Was it difficult to make a decision not to take any financing from the Russian government?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: So far, so good. Everything is fine. The main financing for this particular movie came from Russia, Alexander Rodnyansky was my producer. He gave the majority of the money. There was also of course Wild Bunch, Why Not, and the Dardenne Brothers, but it was my producer’s decision to not to take government money. And I hope to continue doing my films in Russia and I have no doubt that it will happen because no one tries to stop me from doing so there is no problem with that.
Would you say that there is a lot of personal stuff in your films? Do some of your stories come from your own experience? For instance, the divorce in Loveless, is that something that you’ve lived?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: My story? (laughs). Well, I have four kids, and I have about three or four marriages, I’m not quite sure (laughs). Maybe five ( laughs). And it was always a battle between two people of course, not in such expressions as we showed in the movie, but of course, it all comes from my personal experience and my friends and people I know.
But you mentioned Tarkovsky and I want to tell you one story that no one else can tell you. Nobody because it is something that I assume to be true. In one of the books about Tarkovsky, I found a printout, a paper with his handwriting where he put down some of the names of the biggest film directors, from his point of view. It was some kind of interview for some magazine with Tarkovsky and he put this list of names in his own handwriting on a piece of paper. So there was this list of film directors, and there, of course, was the Diary of a Country Priest of Robert Bresson, The Seventh Seal of Bergman, and La Notte of Antonioni. And then, there was this huge cross on Michelangelo Antonioni. It is my understanding that’s because he realized that Antonioni was where he came from.
Sony Pictures Classics acquired all North and Latin American rights to Loveless.