Andrei Zvyagintsev on His Tragic Fairy Tale “Loveless,” Today’s Russia, and Selfies

Russia's foremost living filmmaker on making art out of his country's travails


Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless screened the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival and emerged as one of the major contenders in competition. (You can read my review here.) Not unlike Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated 2014 triumph, Leviathan, which also won Best Screenplay at the festival, the new film, about the search for a missing child, is a highly symbolic yet emotionally resonant thriller that tells a human story within a broader portrait of modern-day Russia. I met with the director at Cannes for a one-on-one discussion of his new work.

Village Voice: Like some of your other films, Loveless seems to work on two distinct levels. It’s a deeply emotional, tragic story, but then it also seems to work as a political allegory. Did you set out to strike such a balance?

Andrey Zvyagintsev: To me, it’s interesting how we managed to find this balance between these two elements of the film, where neither was overwhelming the other. From the reviews that I’ve heard from my friends, they also see a good balance. The film begins in October of 2012 and ends in February of 2015, and, during this period, we experienced a lot of losses: If, in 2012, people still had hope for change and for some spirit of freedom, by 2015, there was complete apathy and lack of understanding of the perspectives that we had. For example, it’s tragic that we lost our neighbor, the Ukraine, like we lost a child.

Several social forces seem to dominate the characters in this film. Among them is a kind of aggressive religious piety. There’s the figure of “Beardy,” as he’s called — the boss of Boris, the father, who is a runaway capitalist and forces religion on his employees. And then when Zhenya, the mother, goes to see her mother, the old woman seems like a throwback to the old Soviet era, but even she is yelling about God. Is this something you find reflected in Russia today?

I don’t think this only happens in Russia, but we did not make anything up. I believe the majority of my Russian viewers recognize this type of mother from this very patriarchal society who is pagan, in my point of view. She has nothing to do with religion or God. She’s like a pagan woman, just like this beard guy whom we do not see — because a really religious person who believes in God will not try to force someone else to believe in these kinds of things. Speaking of this beard guy: He had a prototype — a real Russian named Boiko-Veliky, who owned a big enterprise that produced milk. In 2011, he tried to force his employees to go through a church wedding. It was obligatory in order not to be fired. Meanwhile, Zhenya’s mother is like this terrible mixture of the Soviet culture that she buries in her. There’s this crazy, pagan religiosity, which creates this Russian monster — like a fairy tale that we can recognize, all of us.

You have different visual approaches for Zhenya and Boris. We often see her behind glass, and she’s usually very posed, almost as if she’s conscious of herself as an object. Whereas the father we often see through tracking shots as he enters a space, or we’re with him inside a car, driving on the road or entering parking lots — a very aggressive visual approach, in contrast to the mother. Am I crazy in seeing these elements?

No, it’s me who’s crazy. [Laughs] We made some decisions on how to shoot these scenes, but there was no symbolism involved. It’s just that I find something really beautiful. For example, this love scene where [the mother] comes to the window, puts her hand to the window, and [her boyfriend] comes to her from behind, and we do not hear what is going on but realize that this love scene continues. There’s this empty city that reflects in the window, and there is rain coming down. Her gesture of touching the glass is making her realize it’s a reality and not a dream, but it’s not like I always think about specifically creating beautiful images every time; I just find something beautiful and try to show it.

We constantly see these women in the background of the film who are flirting and giving out their numbers. I’m curious where this came from.

This passion for selfies is like a virus that spreads all over the world, like an illness of modern-day society. But these two particular scenes that you’re talking about — the women who take selfies and this girl who gives her phone number to a complete stranger in the restaurant — are needed as the frame for a dialogue between Zhenya and [her boyfriend] Anton, because we just wanted to emphasize the sexuality and the environment in this restaurant that they were in, and wanted to transfer this sexual energy onto our characters and show it to our viewers. But these scenes about giving away the number or taking selfies are really quotes from life. It’s something we have observed, my friends and I, in real life.

Can you tell me about the shot of the boy crying behind the door? This provoked gasps from me and others in the theater. Is this an image you had in your head before you decided to make this film?

It’s actually the thing from which everything began. When my co-author, Oleg Negin, and I were creating the script, this was the first scene that I saw in my head and knew I wanted to include — so, yeah, it was literally the beginning of everything. The scene is important because it’s a very powerful strike into the hearts of viewers, and I just hope it grabs the viewer and doesn’t let go until the end of the film.

We hear all the time about the repressiveness of Russian media. And yet you are able to make films with clear political overtones and a critical perspective. Is that difficult for you?

It’s not like anyone’s trying to stop me from what I’m doing in Russia — it’s not at all like that. No one tries to influence me or put pressure on my ideas. Leviathan was the only movie of mine made with government funding. For Loveless, there was no government money at all. But, for the time being, I just shoot what I want to and nobody tries to stop me from doing so. Until this moment, they haven’t tried to put me under domestic arrest or something.