Sunday, January 14, 2018

218. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film “Nelyubov” (Loveless) (2017) (Russia), based on his co-scripted original screenplay with Oleg Negin: Indirectly encapsulating the state of politics in Russia from late 2012 to December 2015 and religion as practised today in that country.

On the very obvious level, Loveless is a modern tale of a middle-class family living in Moscow. Boris and Zhenya, the parents of a 12 year old schoolboy Aloysha, are on the verge of a divorce.  This might appear to be a tale of the disappearance of the anguished kid deprived of parental love—but the film is much more.  What is not so obvious in Loveless, is precisely what makes the film outstanding—as is the case of any Zvyagintsev feature film. The key to appreciating Zvyagintsev is to “suspend your belief” in the obvious and re-evaluate what was presented. And every shot of his films is loaded with silent commentary for any astute viewer to pick up and relish.

There is a special flavour that exudes from original screenplays conceived by directors in contrast to adapted screenplays based on novels, plays and historical events. That  flavour will make an erudite viewer sit up. Barring the exception of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Banishment (built on the framework of the US novelist William Saroyan’s The Laughing Matter) all four other Zvyagintsev’s films are based on the original screenplays.  The last four of the five Zvyagintsev feature films were co-scripted with Oleg Negov. If there is one common thread that binds all the five works --it would be love and absence of love, often within the walls of a family. To the more astute viewer, there are two other common perspectives in all the five films: the political state of Russia and religion in Russia, as practised by the Russian Orthodox Church today.  These statements are explained in the paragraphs that follow.

Aloysha: at the mercy of parents who want to divorce

Zvygaintsev in an interview with Nancy Tartaglione published in Nov 2017 in stated ( “These events (in Loveless) take place against a very specific historical background. The film begins in October of 2012, when people were full of hope and were waiting for changes in the political climate, when they thought that the state would listen to them. But 2015 is the climax of their disappointment: The feeling that there is no hope for positive changes, the atmosphere of aggression and the militarization of society, and the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies.” This statement is further testimony to what any Zvyagintsev film enthusiast already knew; that all Zvyagintsev films’ plots can be viewed as political metaphors/allegories. Zvyagintsev’s and Negin’s Aloysha is an obvious allegory of Russia today.

Boris: the father who is more worried about keeping his job after the divorce
than looking after his son

Zhenya: the mother more interested in a richer lifestyle after the divorce

Zvyagintsev’s first film The Return was about two young boys who grew up in the apparent absence of love from their biological father and their affinity to him when he does return.  When the kids understand their father’s love, it is too late. In his second film Banishment, the focus is on love and absence of love between mother and father, as also between father and children.  When the husband ultimately appreciates his wife’s love for him, it is too late. In Zvyagintsev’s third film Elena, a rich man has a hedonistic daughter from his first marriage, a grown-up offspring whom he loves but that love is only reciprocated by her in an aloof manner. Elena, also has a biological son, daughter-in law and grandson from an earlier marriage, whom she loves and cares for financially. The focus of Elena is also on the love or the lack of love between husband and wife. In Zvyagintsev’s fourth film Leviathan, the husband forgives his erring wife and obviously intensely loves her and their son.  That film had included a sermon by a Russian Orthodox priest in the church (towards the end of the film) that stated "Love dwells not in strength but in love". Thus, love or lack of it within the family connects all the five Zvyagintsev films.

Apart from Zvyaginstev, much of the high quality of the last four films ought to be attributed to co-scriptwriter Oleg Negin. Their collaboration is akin to late career collaborations on scripts of director Andrei Konchalovsky with Elena Kiseleva, of director Krzysztof Kieslowski with Krzysztof Piesiewicz, of director Aleksandr Sokurov with Yuri Arabov, and of director Ken Loach with Paul Laverty. Each of these collaborations has been spectacular. In Loveless, the script reflects the socio-political Russia (mention of the Ukraine war on television is like a loss of a child to father Russia), partially cut trees preparing the ground for more concrete constructions, while older buildings are crumbling, uninhabited and neglected. (In doing so, they seem to be paying a silent tribute to Andrey Tarkovsky’s films Stalker and Solaris.)

Loveless may seem to be lacking in the religious fervour of the scriptwriters more obvious in the earlier works such as Leviathan and Banishment.  Is it really so? Boris and his co-worker at work talk about their boss (they refer to him as “Beardy”) as a fundamentalist Christian who wants all his employees to be happily married, if they want to keep their jobs.  Another worker, it is revealed, who was not happily married, paid someone to act as his wife and progeny at an official get together to keep his job.  Zvyagintsev revealed in an interview that the character of Beardy was built on a real Russian industrialist with a similar mindset. 

Zvyagintsev is a deeply religious director who is disapproving fundamentalist religious fervor indirectly in Loveless.  Similarly, when Zhenya’s mother invokes God briefly, it is not a religious outburst but more of a reflex comment from a “Stalin in skirts,” as Boris describes his mother-in-law, invoking God. Zvyagintsev and Negin are clearly pointing to the lack of understanding of religion of those who profess their faith but act to the contrary. Another commentary on Russia today!

When the police force gives up on locating Aloysha, social groups get into the act without any monetary reward. Even though Zvyagintsev protests that his films are universal and not social or political, it might be a strange coincidence that the age of Aloysha is precisely the number of years Putin has headed the Russian government.

The mother is more concerned with her smartphone
than looking after her biological son,
who she claims is even beginning to smell like his father

The absence of love in Loveless is not merely between a set of divorcing parents and their growing son.  There is no love lost between Zhenya and her mother, the “Stalin in skirts,” who lives alone in a fortress, hardly ever in touch with her daughter.  In the search for the missing Aloysha, the police find a body of a similar 12 year old—evidently there are other Aloyshas in Russia today. Perhaps the current generation is behaving thus because of how their parents behaved and acted religious in the past when they did not translate their belief into actions.

What are the reasons for these instances of absence of love? Loveless suggests that it could be hedonism, the love for modern smart-phones overtaking interest in their immediate family, or it could even be the pursuit of wealth and comfort.

Much of these opinions are not said overtly but effectively captured by Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, as they did together in four of the five Zvyagintsev films. Krichman’s camera lingers to capture more than the action, he focuses on the environment that plays a silent role in the events. Krichman is emerging as a major cinematographer alive and making films today. The best sequence of Loveless is the silent scream of Aloysha, reminiscent of actor Rod Steiger’s final anguished scream towards the end in The Pawnbroker (1964).

Zvyagintsev is also a master of using silent sequences for effect followed by pulsating minimalist music. He had used Philip Glass’ music very effective in both Elena and Leviathan. In Banishment, he had used the music of Arvo Part.  In Loveless, he asked Evgueni and Sacha Galperine, a French duo, to compose the music by merely providing the story. They came up with “11 cycles of E” made of one note and one rhythm, which is quite similar to the soundtrack of Elena.  The Galperines won the European Film Award for Best Composer with the interesting citation that stated the intelligent piano effects made the score work like an extra character added to the unfortunate family.

The first and closing sequences of both Elena and Loveless have a similar and familiar Zvyagintsev signature: the sound/images of a hooded crow cawing on leafless trees in bleak and cold exterior shots of an urban setting. It is depressing. Yet the subjects of these five films are broadly, truly universal. 

One of the final sequences with "Russia" in bold
to reiterate the unsaid 

Is this the best work of Zvyagintsev? Though the film Loveless is remarkable in most respects, the lengthy hedonistic scenes make the previous works of the director more palatable. Leviathan was definitely more complex than Loveless. Yet Loveless might prove to have more universal appeal than his other profound works.

P.S. The film Loveless won the Jury Prize award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and the Best Film award at the London and the Zagreb Film Festivals. It won the Silver Frog at the Cameraimage festival for its cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who also won the best cinematographer award at the European Film Awards. Zvyagintsev won the Best Director award at the Asia Pacific Screen awards.  The four Zvyagintsev films The Return, Banishment, Elena, and Leviathan have been reviewed earlier on this blog. (Click on the name of the film in this post script to access each review). Loveless is one of the top 10 films of 2017 for the author. Zvyagintsev is one of the top 10 active film directors for the author.