Suffer the Children: Growing Up in a Zvyagintsev Film
Andrey Zvyagintsev makes thrillers populated by moments of tension and dread. The Russian filmmaker may not have the widespread appeal of Michael Mann, but his finely-tuned work is as adept at exploring the male psyche as Heat (1996), Collateral (2004) or Miami Vice (2006). At the same time, Zvyagintsev is an articulate chronicler of contemporary family life, detailing how the actions of parents impact their children. And his most recent feature Loveless, available on Curzon Home Cinema, might be his best.
Zvyagintsev studied acting before becoming a director. Starting out in theatre, he quickly moved to television, directing two dramas, before his feature debut The Return (2001) premiered in competition at the Venice Film Festival. Awarded the top prize, the Golden Lion, it tells the story of a man who, after a log absence, returns home to his family. The wife doesn’t appear entirely happy with his presence, but his eldest son welcomes a strong paternal figure into the household. However, the younger son, who never really got to know his father before he left, resents his sudden return. Matters worsen when the father announces he has a job to do, a journey to make, and orders the boys to accompany him.
The Return opens with a game of chicken and its aftermath between the two siblings. It’s a rite of passage activity that reinforces the alpha male pyramid of power. But the father exacerbates this game, pushing it into dangerous territory and mocking his sons if they fail to pass muster. The reason for the journey is a classic Hitchcockian McGuffin; it’s of no importance. What matters is the journey itself and Zvyagintsev’s chronicling the boy’s increasing resistance to their father’s attempts to intimidate them. The narrative’s deceptive simplicity belies a complex portrait of a society where a narrow definition of masculinity reigns supreme, yet exacts a heavy emotional, psychological and physical toll.
There’s a possibility that the siblings in The Return might have grown into the two brothers at the heart of The Banishment (2007). Zvyagintsev’s least appreciated film is nevertheless a visual marvel. From the extended opening shot – as painterly as any image in recent cinema, from Abbas Kiarostami to Nuri Bilge Ceylan – Zvyagintsev’s film offers up a modern-day biblical parable: the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Eden in this instance is a remote, windswept rural idyll. However, it is Adam/Alex (Konstantin Lavronenko, the father from The Return) who despoils this world. Once again, a particular kind of masculinity – paranoid, emasculated – tears the family apart.
Zvyagintsev’s most recent features have become increasingly pointed in their critique of Russia’s kleptocratic system of authority and its debilitating impact on the ordinary populace. In Elena (2011) it’s the influence of wealth that corrupts. The titular character is a woman in late middle-age, whose second marriage to a wealthy Muscovite finds her occupying a role more akin to a housemaid than a wife. She hastens her husband’s demise in order to secure financial stability for her grown-up family. In Leviathan (2014), Zvyagintsev turns his attention to the close relationship between church and state. He details one man’s fall from grace – a fate determined by an attempt by the man to challenge the authorities after they placed a compulsory purchase order on his house in order to use his land to build a church. The younger generation are seen to pay a heavy toll in both films. (Although it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for Elena’s grandson or her step-daughter. But perhaps that’s Zvyagintsev’s point – they have been irrevocably corrupted and their fate is sealed.)
Loveless is the filmmaker’s most overt statement since his debut on the way that people and systems of power destroy the young. It opens with a blistering back and forth between a soon-to-be-divorced couple. Their words are full of vitriol and their delivery more splenetic with each response. It’s horrible, yet riveting. The tension Zvyagintsev creates makes it impossible to turn away. But then a bomb is dropped – a moment of pained, agonising horror. We witness something oblivious to the characters and it pushes the film into the realms of tragedy. Whereas a thriller director like Hitchcock allowed us to peer into the abyss before pulling us back to safety, Zvyagintsev has us drop without a parachute. A caustic relationship drama, Loveless also plays out like a procedural thriller. But between the scenes of marital discord and the central plot, the film reinforces the notion that the sins of parents may not just be passed on to their children, but may ultimately destroy them.