In Conversation with Andrey Zvyagintsev

Andrey talks about where his love of film began and his views on how it is to be an artist in Russia, and his upcoming comedy about Manchester United


“There were several radical comments, even from notable figures in the political sphere, suggesting that certain artists ought to go out on to Red Square and ask for forgiveness from the entire Russian people.”

1500 miles from Moscow, director Andrey Zvyagintsev is held in a much higher regard. His latest work Loveless, about a divorcing couple whose son disappears, won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and his Q&A after our interview at HOME is completely sold out.

We meet in a stylish little bar adjacent to a cinema. Myself, joined by Elizabeth acting as translator, and Andrey, joined by his producer, Alexander Rodnyanksy. Andrey had a matter of fact appearance, wearing a plain grey t-shirt, blue jeans, and brown shoes.

Andrey is a calculated man. As he was asked each question he paused to ponder it for a few moments, formulating his answer. When at last he gave his responses he spoke with such assurance that, although I couldn’t understand a single word, I was gripped.

Alexander, on the other hand, had his chair facing slightly away from us, as if he could not be less interested. He spent the entire interview fixated on his phone, seemingly unable to reply to the wave of notifications faster than they came.

I became doubtful of his participation in the conversation yet, sporadically, he would lift his eyes to look over to Andrey, or Elizabeth, or myself and contribute as if he was sat on the edge of his seat as I was, hanging onto every word. Alexander has mastered the skill of appearing oblivious and I was amazed.

Growing up in Novosibirsk, Russia, Andrey can pinpoint the exact film that sparked his love of cinema, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura. He described seeing it as a turning point in his creative destiny, which changed his beliefs of what cinema, and its language, could be.

“I came out of the cinema and it was as if I couldn’t move – I was in the street with my friend, and he was chattering away, saying, “come on, hurry up, let’s go!”, but all I could say was “Yuri, be quiet, just give me a minute…”

I’m convinced, but it’s just my opinion, that Tarkovsky [the revered and influential Soviet director] was heavily influenced by Antonioni. He never spoke about it, but I think it’s obvious from his films, because the 1960s were a time of renaissance for cinema, all over the world, and the event of the appearance of neorealism, in particular, Antonioni’s Italian brand of neorealism, was like an underground explosion. It had such an influence on everything.

This started Andrey down a path he still travels today. His directorial project was a small project for TV of three twenty five-minute short films. “In the year 2000, Dmitry Lesnevsky [an influential Russian TV and film producer and entrepreneur] suggested I make a series. I decided that I would film each of the three screenplays that the producer had given me with different cameramen — I wanted to play with the style and try things out with different ensembles.”

“Then in March 2000, almost exactly 18 years ago, I met Mikhail Krichman [cinematographer]. It was a complete coincidence, a friend of mine introduced us, and we’ve worked together ever since. I gave up on the idea of making three features with three different crews only thanks to the fact that I delegated the first of the three to Mikhail. After the forty days of filming, I knew I didn’t want to work with anyone else. I knew that I had found a creative partner.”

Their collaboration has spanned several feature-length films but none had an impact quite like their fourth film, Leviathan, about a Russian fisherman who tries to stop a corrupt mayor from seizing his ancestral home.

“On one radio station, the presenter put out the question of whether people considered the film “Russophobic”, despite never having seen it. 48 per cent of people who called in said yes. The reaction in Russia was certainly unambiguous, but there were more positive appraisals and enthusiasm too.”

The Russian authorities, having previously supported Andrey’s work, radically shifted their position after seeing Leviathan. Vladimir Medinsky, Russian Minister of Culture, criticised the film for portraying Russians as a ‘swearing, vodka-swigging people’. He noted that not a single character was positive and suggested that Andrey’s work was motivated by ‘fame, red carpets, and statuettes’ rather than reality. Medinsky went as far as to propose new guidelines to ban moves that ‘defile’ the national culture.

“I suppose things may well get worse. Recently it has been getting more and more difficult to maintain artistic and creative property, an artistic view on life and art, to pose difficult questions and a complex view of reality to your audience. Inevitably curiosity and attraction to the work wins out, without a doubt, this tendency exists all over the world. But I think that’s how it will continue to be. Platforms like the festivals in Cannes, Venice, Berlin, which support this kind of film and provide an outlet and a springboard for it, are very important. In Russia, put simply it’s very difficult.”

Despite the polarised reaction to Leviathan, they weren’t worried about the reception for Loveless. “I knew that Loveless would be divisive in some way, but the thing I couldn’t have predicted was the degree to which it would radicalise people’s opinions.”

“A lot of people were expecting after they had seen Leviathan to queue up and watch another “Russophobic” film. Some people couldn’t shed their opinions towards Leviathan and so they came to see Loveless still saying, “bah, this director has no love for his characters, no love for people at all, no love for Russian people at all”.

“Of course, Leviathan paved the way to Loveless having such a broad audience. And for many people, their interest in Loveless was dictated by their initial experience and views on Leviathan. You could call me a representative of Russian cinema, but I wouldn’t know what to do with that.”

“Taking on a title like that, I would be concerned that it might change my behavior. No one dictated to me what to do to make these films successful. I don’t carry out anyone else’s intentions. I’m not a representative of Russian cinema — that’s the last thing I need to think about. If that was the case, then I’d have to fulfill some kind of imposed role — I’m not interested in that.”

Andrey recognises that his cinematic future may one day lay outside Russia, but that isn’t something he is against. “Today we were walking around the city, and I was thinking we should make a film about Manchester. Maybe a comedy with the Manchester United team! But seriously, if suddenly an idea came to me that was relevant, fresh, and had to be in some other language or in a different country, and felt relatable to me and a natural next step, there wouldn’t be any obstacles in my mind.”

“I’ve already had a little experience on a project in New York where I was the only one who could speak Russian. I had an assistant who acted as a translator for me so she managed the communication. During the scenes with dialogue I wondered whether I would be able to interact with the actors, whether their language would just go over my head, but ultimately, I realised that in principle it was possible. So I wouldn’t see any obstacles there. There’s only one obstacle, and that is to find good people.”

Our conversation ended by asking Andrey whether he was in the process of starting another film. “I have plans, but it’s difficult to talk about it, not just because there are few details at the moment but because I don’t definitely know what the next step will be. I’ve already taken enough of a break, we finished the film in May last year – I’m ready for the next film.”

“It was something of a forced break really, because the awards season started, then winter came around, and now the awards are going on until the Oscars on 4th March. We’ve all just been thinking about that date, and now it’s not far off.” “It’s a good thing you’ve hung in there,” Alexander chipped in, “you’re a survivor.” With characteristic wry humour, Andrey laughed back, “No, we won’t survive, that’s for sure!”

Review: Loveless

Zvyagintsev uses a crumbling marriage as a metaphor for the country as a whole

On the surface, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless depicts the heart-wrenching disappearance of a divorcing couple’s son and their subsequent, fruitless search. As the film delves deeper however it reveals a much broader social commentary, about how the ever-increasing desire for social status and instant gratification paralyses the population and restricts them from ever achieving long-term happiness.

When 12-year-old Alexey finishes school he doesn’t run off with the other children, nor does he go straight home, instead he goes to the park and wanders around aimlessly. He is an only, lonely child, whose parents Zhenya and Boris venomously row seemingly every time they are confined to the same room. To escape the bleak and harsh environment of his family he must roam the bleak and harsh Moscow parks and abandoned buildings.

One night, when his parents think he is asleep they have a particularly vitriolic dispute, with both sides voicing their utter contempt for each other, yet both in agreement that their son Alexey is holding them back from moving on fully. Zhenya storms off to use the bathroom but as she leaves the camera lingers. The door swings open, and we track to the left with it to reveal Alexey, who horrifically heard every word. His facial expression remains in the viewer’s mind throughout the rest of the film.

Not long after, we see Alexey leave the house, run down the apartment buildings steps and into the park. His parents, so caught up in trying to live new lives with their lovers, being as presumptuous as to believe the other will take care of their child, don’t notice his disappearance for two days. Even then Boris treats it as a nuisance; he has no time to care about this, his mind busy elsewhere.

For instance, how can he divorce Zhenya and remarry his impregnated lover quickly enough that his incredibly conservative boss doesn’t notice anything is awry, for being a decent family man is one of the qualifications needed for his company. Zhenya, on the other hand, is too busy pampering herself to please her new, older, richer lover. Both spend the night having passionate sex, ignorant of the fact that their son is gone.

Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on all Zvyagintsev’s films, uses a wide lens to juxtapose the worn Russian landscape with the emotionless faces of the characters. There is a deep coldness to this style. The characters, although right in front of your eyes, feel miles away. The impact of this is emphasised by the lack of colour throughout the film, the Moscow landscapes are washed out, any positive emotions long gone. Primary colours exist in just two forms in Loveless; the social media of the Muscovites’ smartphones and the red jackets of the volunteer search and rescue team as they comb the park in a line, looking for a body.

Later in the film Zhenya and Boris, who eventually drop everything to try and find Alexey, get a call. A body of a young boy has been found matching their son, and they are to discern whether it is him. This scene is as devastating as the bathroom scene. When the body bag is unzipped Zhenya screams and Boris collapses in tears, the boy is not theirs, but the fact that it could have been is too much to handle. For just a moment there is genuine love between them.

Throughout the search for Alexey, the camera moves away from the face of the characters, to peer out of a frosted window as the scene unfolds, reminiscent of Taxi Driver when Robert de Niro’s character makes a difficult phone call and the camera tracks to look down the corridor instead.

In both cases, the movement functions as an escape from the anguish present in the original frame. Zhenya and Boris put up barriers to protect them from their loss and suffering in an attempt to find new happiness with their lovers, but like the buildings in Moscow those walls decay and fall down. They can jump from lover to lover but they will never escape the past, their pain will always catch them.