Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Cannes Jury Prize winner Loveless is the Foreign Language entry from Russia this year, and one of the frontrunners for the shortlist. Sony Pictures Classics acquired all North and Latin American rights to Loveless in Cannes. This is the director’s third time repping his country after 2003’s The Return and 2014’s Oscar nominee Leviathan. The film revolves around Zhenya and Boris, who are going through a vicious divorce marked by resentment, frustration and recriminations. Already embarking on new lives, each with a new partner, they are impatient to start again. But when their 12-year-old son Alyosha disappears after witnessing one of their fights, the pair must come together.
Zvyagintsev’s films have been seen as criticizing the Russian government and yet he continues to find support from the local Oscar committee. His producer Alexander Rodnyansky explains why, but not before Zvyagintsev talks about the film and the current climate of making movies in Russia.
Why did you need to tell the story of Loveless now?
Andrey Zvyagintsev: Loveless is a story of a painful divorce of an ordinary middle-class Moscow family. Their ordinariness was partly a reason to choose them and not people from low social strata, who more often treat their children horribly. And suddenly among these seemingly prosperous people who know life, we see that their child became a burden for both of them. These events 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 the militarization of society, and the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies.
How do you prefer to work with actors?
Zvyagintsev: When an actor comes to you and starts working with the script, the image of his character that you had in your mind gets substituted with an image of that particular actor. And this is the right way to go. An actor has to be absolutely truthful—this is the only thing required of him, apart from talent of course. It’s very easy to understand: you need to absolutely believe in what you see.
Some actors come to casting and ask me, “Didn’t you see my previous roles?” We do not work with actors like this. Their previous roles do not matter; I need the actual work with an actor in this particular character that has been written in our script. What matters is flexibility, believability and efficiency of an actor. Only once during my career as a director was there an instance where we knew the actor even when we were writing the script: We knew for sure that Roman Madyanov would be the mayor in Leviathan. We still did auditions for this role, though.
What ties all of your work together?
Zvyagintsev: What I know is that I am honest about my films, and my films are honest about reality. The stories themselves dictate the way that they should be told. In The Return, we had the task of blurring the borders of space and time, creating a special ethereal place where the events of the film take place. It didn’t matter where or when that story took place because the story itself was eternal. It was completely different with Elena, where the eternal story is made very contemporary with a specific time and place; the story was facing the viewer. And the same was true for Leviathan. This was not a question of strategy. You get the idea and it defines the way that this film should be realized. In a way, my last three films are still metaphors; at least for me, they are attempts to comprehend the universal reality. Universal, but not social—or God forbid, political—environment.
What is it like working in Russia right now?
Zvyagintsev: If you are talking about art and not the political environment, then there is no specific way that you can feel any changes in the past few years. Russia is a huge country with many people and many stories, and we tell them as we see them. The one thing that changed with Loveless is we didn’t have any state financing. Our experience with Leviathan was too troublesome. But that was our decision—we never even applied for any state grants this time. I just continue to do what I always do. Continue to move forward without looking back, without any kind of self-censorship.
It was surprising that Leviathan was submitted as Russia’s Oscar entry given its criticism of the state—and now you’re back with Loveless. How do you explain that?
Alexander Rodnyansky: The Russian Oscar Committee, which chooses the national entry into the Oscar race, consists of film professionals who, even though they might have widely different political beliefs, still recognize Andrey for what he is: One of the best film directors in contemporary Russia. With Leviathan, the process was more challenging, but I have managed to secure in advance the support of a large group of filmmakers, and that helped us trick the system. There was an opposition campaign against Loveless this year. People who objected to the film on political grounds tried to divide the voters, but with the Cannes prize—with great US and UK press and fantastic screenings at Toronto and Telluride—Loveless was by far the strongest candidate.