Loveless is the fifth feature directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. For some critics, he has become the successor to Andrei Tarkovsky. Every film has won a major prize. With Leviathan (2014) he fell foul of the Russian government and this latest film comes as a co-production in which Zvyagintsev has attracted support from French-German cultural TV channel arte and fellow filmmakers the Dardennes Brothers among others. Cannes prizewinners stick together. In the UK, the film is released by the small independent Altitude rather than one of the larger arthouse brands like Curzon Artificial Eye. I hope this doesn’t restrict audience access – it doesn’t seem to have done so far.
I’ve been surprised by some of the reviews for the film in the UK and there has been a lot of discussion about how harrowing the film is etc. I’m somebody who weeps easily in any sentimental film and copiously for a finely wrought melodrama. I sat through Loveless unmoved, but always closely engaged. This isn’t callousness on my part but rather a function of the film’s address to audiences (it may also be because I’m not a parent). The film doesn’t aim to manipulate emotions but to observe a situation. The style is ‘hyper realist’ with a camera eye that is cold and unblinking, observing, often head-on, a marriage disintegrating. The camera is often still and the digital image is pristine but desaturated, emphasising the bleakness of the coming Russian winter in the opening and closing shots of the film. I think it is a kind of anti-melodrama and I enjoy the visual splendour of a film which some critics seem to feel is too heavy-handed. I’m sure there are things I missed or haven’t thought through, but I’m confident that there is intelligence behind every move Zvyagintsev makes.
The story is carefully set in 2012 (referenced via news reports and later on posters). As someone in another review has pointed out, the figure at the centre of the narrative (even if he appears only fleetingly), is 12 year-old Alyosha who was born in 2000, the first official year of Vladimir Putin’s presidency. The appraisal of society that the film offers could be argued to be a statement about ‘Putin’s Russia’. Alyosha is unlucky to be the son of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), parents who are in the process of divorcing, having both found new partners. There doesn’t seem to be a place for Alyosha in either new relationship, so perhaps it’s not surprising that he disappears one day. The narrative then becomes about the search for Alyosha and what this does (or doesn’t do) to Zhenya and Boris. In various interviews Zvyagintsev has said that the idea for the film came when he visited America in 2015 and that Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (Sweden 1973/4) was a filmic starting point. This implies a kind of universalist approach. The tragedy could actually happen anywhere. But Zvyagintsev is an artist who believes that universal stories have to be rooted in a specific place and he’s chosen different Russian settings for his films. In this sense Loveless is most like Elena (2011) in focusing on social class difference in suburban Moscow. Not many critics have noticed that Aleksey Rozin as Boris, also appeared as Elena’s son Sergey in the 2011 film. There are several other parallels between the two films, e.g. the potential pathway which leads boys from school into the armed forces.
The family in Loveless, though upwardly mobile, lives in a flat/apartment in a high-rise block in suburban Moscow. Boris has a desk-job in a company owned by a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, who Zhenya refers to as operating a form of ‘Sharia Orthodox Law’. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Boris’s new partner Masha is already heavily pregnant, so he won’t lose face in his company if he divorces and remarries before anyone notices. Zhenya has some kind of interest in a beauty salon – but she has also snared a wealthy older businessman with a grown-up daughter. Both parents have their materialist concerns sorted out, but they don’t have much idea about parenting. I wondered about ‘spoilers’ at this point, but this film is not heavy on plot. It turns into a kind of police procedural when Alyosha goes missing and I need to analyse some moments to make any meaningful comments.
The look of the film
Zvyagintsev has worked with the same key ‘creatives’ on several films. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has photographed three out of four (but not Elena). Production designer/art director Andrey Ponkratov has also been on three out of four shoots (including Elena). I mention Elena for two aesthetic reasons. One is the use of opening and closing sequences without actions but heavy with a sense of something – and I’m not sure exactly what it is. We know from interviews that in Elena, the shots (outside an apartment) were shot in a studio. Loveless was supposedly all shot on location, but the complex compositions inside apartment buildings feel like they too were studio shoots – perhaps Ponkratov constructed sets inside empty apartments? In both films there is significant action outside the apartment blocks, especially in the wooded areas. Moscow appears to be like Paris with high-rise blocks some distance from the centre of the city. This kind of development is not often found in the same way in the UK (though the architecturally-famous high-rises of the Alton Estate in Roehampton that featured in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451 make an interesting parallel). Particularly resonant are shots through the windows and over the slopes below the high-rise where the disintegrating family live. As my viewing companion remarked, the images towards the end of the film, with families enjoying tobogganing on the snowy slopes, looks almost like a Breughel painting. The three images above show the complex mise en scène of the apartment and the more naturalistic shots of the woodland walk home that Alyosha makes from school. The trailer below also has shots of the landscapes around the high-rises.
The static head-on camera is quite disturbing in its ‘immersive’ effect. At one point it is almost like we are sitting on the other side of the works canteen table as Boris and his immediate boss eat their lunch. Boris explores issues about the firm’s moral codes as his colleague eats noisily, occasionally dropping food from his fork. As one reviewer has pointed out, we become complicit with the ‘bad parents’ when we realise that we’ve been so wrapped up in watching and criticising them that we too have failed to notice that Alyosha has disappeared. Zvyagintsev and his collaborators use the ‘Scope frame very well. Several scenes are so detailed that we feel forced to look around the screen and in one delicious shot in the open-plan office space, we notice that somebody is playing Solitaire on their desktop – a moment of frivolity in the oppressive work space.
When Boris and Zhenya finally go to the police, the narrative does change to the extent that an element of both ‘mystery’ and ‘procedure’ takes over. The procedure structures the narrative, not through the police, but through the appearance of the volunteer search group comprising volunteers who are incredibly well-organised. The group is modelled on a real life organisation called ‘Liza Alert’, formed after the tragic conclusion to the disappearance of a 5 year-old girl. This is discussed in an excellent piece by Jonathan Romney in Sight and Sound, March 2018. The police are not incompetent or uncaring as such, but simply overwhelmed by the number of missing persons and the paperwork required to progress anything. Inevitably, we make the comparison between the ineffectiveness of the police under Putin and the model of efficiency and common sense portrayed by the volunteers. They represent the possibilities of disinterested but public-spirited groups of citizens who care. They give their time and effort to a worthwhile cause. I’m tempted to think of them as representing what was good about the socialist state destroyed by rampant capitalism. Zvyagintsev shows us not just Boris and Zhenya, but many others in the worlds that they inhabit, trapped within a materialist world of screens, phones and selfies. This is presumably the ‘heavy-handedness’ some critics don’t like, but I find it a very powerful when I re-edit the film in my head and juxtapose the volunteers searching the forest and an abandoned Soviet era building with the selfie takers in a restaurant. I do have to agree, however, that Zvyagintsev tends make the women responsible for the worst excesses. Zhenya is hard, selfish and grasping. Boris is weak and at times pathetic and looks as if he has learned nothing as he moves into his new family set-up. The gender split is then repeated in other groups we see.
Whereas Aleksey Rozin is an actor, like some others in the cast familiar from other Zvyagintsev films, Maryana Spivak as Zhenya is appearing in only her second cinema feature. She is tall and athletic. Zvyagintsev has chosen to show off her body, not I think in a fetishised sexist way but perhaps as an example of consumerist obsession. We see her in the beauty parlour for a waxing and then in bed with her new partner. Similarly we see Boris making love to his heavily pregnant new partner. The scenes are shot quite differently. Boris and Masha are shot from some distance away in a darkened room. Zhenya and her new partner are in a modernist apartment with a dividing panel with a large mirror. Sex for Boris and Masha seems enthusiastic, sweaty and straightforward. Zhenya is presented in more studied poses. At the end of the film we see Zhenya’s athleticism expressed now as exercise on a running machine and she dressed in a shiny new ‘Russia’ tracksuit.
In some ways the ‘procedural’ leads us into thinking about the very successful long-form crime narratives of recent years – except that we understand that Loveless is an art film and we don’t necessarily expect a dramatic resolution. Instead we are returned to the mystery. I’d like to finish by referring again to Jonathan Romney’s piece ‘The Lost Boy’. Romney is one of the best of the current batch of critics and even when I might disagree with him, I can see that his arguments make sense. He comments on Zvyagintsev’s use of symbolism and how contemporary (younger?) audiences seem now to be impatient with it because of their experience of the excessive ‘wash’ of media images from so many sources. They resent the arrogance of someone who challenges them to spend time thinking about what might be being symbolised. This certainly makes sense. There seems to be a rush now to read images in a superficial way and for films to be enjoyed and celebrated if they have easily understood messages. That’s not the case with Zvyagintsev and I look forward to the next five films and their presentation of a complex world with few easy answers.
The previous four films by Zvyagintsev:
The Banishment (2007)
The Return (2003)
The second film by Andrey Zvyagintsev in 2007, five years after the completion of The Return, certainly confirmed the emergence of a major filmmaker and, in its Biblical allusions (and running time), in some ways looked forward to Leviathan seven years later. Like Leviathan, its inspiration was an American story, but in this case a fictional story by William Saroyan. I don’t know how much of that story made its way into The Banishment, but it is striking that there is a balance between relatively short, sharp sequences that might be generic in their references to familiar crime/thriller/melodrama narratives and much longer introspective pieces in which landscapes and interiors come into prominence.
The story involves a couple with two small children, a boy and a girl. Alex is played by Konstantin Lavronenko (the father in The Return) and Vera by the Swedish actress Maria Bonnevie. We first see Alex in ‘the city’ tending to his brother who has been shot. The family then take the train to the isolated country house that belonged to Alex’s parents. During their time in the country it becomes clear that the marriage is under great strain. The crisis point is reached when Vera announces that she is pregnant. Alex’s reaction to her announcement becomes the trigger that ‘fires’ the rest of the narrative.
As in all great cinema, the power of this film resides in the meticulous creation and manipulation of narrative time and space. Zvyagintsev spent three years trying to get exactly what he wanted in terms of locations and dressed sets. According to the interview on the DVD he found landscapes in Moldova and the city locations in Charleroi in Belgium. The sets erected in Moldova were dressed with materials from German flea markets. The intended result was to suggest an environment that is not specifically ‘Russian’ and this it certainly does. When I first saw the film I thought of Ukraine for the landscapes and the industrial centre of Sheffield for the city, so I wasn’t a million miles away. The rural location also evokes American landscapes and even specific Hollywood films. There is a cemetery on a hill-top above a church and the family home with its verandah looks out over the valley. It doesn’t take too much imagination to think your way into a Ford film or perhaps Malick’s Days of Heaven. In the DVD interview Zvyagintsev refers to the ‘American painter Andrew White’. What he then describes can only, as far as I can work out, refer to Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting of ‘Christina’s World’ (1948) which I last discussed in relation to Alexander Payne’s Nebraska. The house in this painting became in the director’s words “. . . colour and texture-wise our reference point in our designs for the film”.
The original Saroyan story was published in 1953 and set in California. Having created a non-specific location, Zvyagintsev also set out to create a world ‘out of time’, so though clearly updated from the 1950s, there are no indicators as to when the story is taking place. Given the thin plot for a film lasting 157 minutes, much of the narrative of the film is carried by the richness of the images, both in terms of narrative space to be explored by the viewer and also the possibilities of symbolic meanings or intertextual references embedded in the mise en scène. It is perhaps this aspect of the film which has so split critics and audiences.
The great success of The Return in 2002 built up an enormous expectation for The Banishment which was screened in competition at Cannes. The film did win the Best Actor prize for Konstantin Lavronenko but in retrospect this seems a strange award. Not that it is a bad performance, but that it doesn’t seem like the most striking aspect of the film. A good example of the critical reaction to the film when it was released in the UK can be found in Neil Young’s review from 2008:
There’s a definite sense that, in straining so hard for auteur-style greatness, Zvyagintsev has ended up merely aping the cinematic giants who have come before him – emphasising his own shortcomings in the process. But there are sufficient compensations and distractions here to suggest that he is a genuine talent – albeit one who needs a firmer editorial hand if he’s to fully maximise his considerable potential.
Young’s review is fair and the ‘cinematic giant’ he refers to is Tarkovsky. He argues that a new Russian auteur inevitably gets called the new Tarkovsky and that Zvyagintsev is in this film making the Tarkovsky gestures but not yet achieving the results. What The Banishment does for me is to send me back to Tarkovsky, a filmmaker I only know from his earlier films, determined to find out more. In the process it occurs to me that though Young’s review is quite even-handed it misses two points. First, I think it requires several viewings and some very close textual analysis to determine how Zvyagintsev’s use of interiors and landscapes matches up to Tarkovsky. Second, the critical context, the social institution of cinema – the festival structure, the veneration of certain types of cinephilia, the scholarship, the availability of DVDs etc. – has changed enormously between the appearance of Tarkovsky’s Venice-winner Ivan’s Childhood in 1962 and Zvyagintsev’s The Return in 2002. And, of course, Russian cinema is very different from how it was in the Khrushchev years of the early 1960s.
When Zvyagintsev speaks about his work he seems aggressive but possibly this also masks a defensiveness. He isn’t a trained filmmaker (instead a trained actor) and he had little experience before directing his features. He sees himself as ‘self-trained’ through exposure to those ‘cinematic giants’ whose work he watched in Moscow when acting jobs were scarce. Like many directors interviewed for festivals and DVD releases he quotes many different directors but often comes back to Bresson, Antonioni etc. Those are two directors I don’t know well so I’m probably seeing different references. I’ve recently watched Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) and there seem to be several ‘borrowings’ and ‘celebrations’ of Tarkovsky’s image-making. For instance a key scene between husband and wife is played out amongst trees in a scene which uses a similar setting and camera techniques seen in the opening of Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. We could find other Tarkovskian moments (and the casting of Maria Bonnevie as the wife seems to evoke Tarkovsky as well). Personally, I don’t have a problem with this. Zvyagintsev, his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman and designer Andrey Ponkratov, seem in complete control of what they are doing and with the music of Andrey Dergachev and Arvo Pärt they create a melodrama of great power. I think I’ll watch it again.
This clip shows what I take to be a dream sequence heavily influenced by Tarkovsky and, according to a colleague, Antonioni. Either way it is a terrific piece of filmmaking:
Ivan’s Childhood is Andrei Tarkovsky’s first feature film and he started his film career running; unquestionably he is a ‘poet’ of cinema. He went on to make a number of masterpieces, such as Andrei Roublev (1967) and Solaris (1972), and his elliptical visual style is evident in his debut. But what does it mean to be a ‘poet of cinema’?
Unlike some of his later films, Ivan’s Childhood has a straightforward narrative. The titular boy acts as a scout for the Red Army toward the end of the war. Although there is very little action, and there’s a tender middle section, without Ivan, where the young medic Masha is courted by Captain Kholin, the story is straightforward. There are, though, four heavily symbolic dream sequences; however, because these are dreams the poetry of the sections are motivated by the narrative. The reason, I believe, ‘poetry’ is an appropriate metaphor for his films is because the mise en scene isn’t simply at the service of the narrative. Takes will extend longer than necessary revelling in the extreme beauty of the image. These images do contribute to the narrative but break out of Hollywood’s hegemonic idea of ‘narrative economy’. This is aided by the extraordinary cinematography of Vadim Yusov, who was mimicking Sergey Urusevskiy’s work in the seminal film of the ‘Russian Thaw’, The Cranes are Flying (Soviet Union, 1957). In the second dream sequence Ivan suddenly finds himself in a well, his mother is standing next to the opening when she falls suddenly and water splashes over her (see above). Proof that Tarkovsky uses the techniques of cinema brilliantly is the astonishing impact of the sequence that sounds bizarre in words.
Tarkovsky’s films are full of such moments and it is possible that Ivan’s Childhood benefits from its brevity (around 90 minutes); he later went for three-hour long epics that have their longuers (which, I hasten to add, are worth it). As it stands the compactness of this film makes it a devastating experience. If the stunning beauty, of often devastated landscapes, isn’t enough, the film ends with documentary footage concerning Goebbel’s suicide and poisoning of his children. Afterwards I needed to put my head in a bucket of ice.
A note on the ‘tender middle section’. I’ve seen it suggested that the Captain is on the verge of sexually harassing Masha. He asks how many boyfriends she has had called ‘Lennie’. She says ‘none’; in reply he says you have one now. On the face of it he is being over-bearing but the performances bely that simplistic reading. They are soldiers ‘on the edge of death’ and so sex was, no doubt, something that was urgent (it may be the last time). Masha isn’t simply a victim of the Captain’s forwardness; she is interested. The scene ends, in a shot that last about 10 seconds, in the clinch (see above) that is shot from a ditch, almost as if it is a grave. Once again, I felt my breathe exhaling at the beauty and dramatic impact of the shot and narrative.
The novel Solaris by Stanislaw Lem was published in 1961 and as such stands as a much more sophisticated narrative than most Western science fiction could manage at the time. Lem wrote as a Pole and although familiar with Western SF also drew on the ‘philosophical writers’ of Eastern Europe such as Franz Kafka. The first English language translation of the novel appeared in 1970. The Russian film version followed in 1972 and as such was taken to be a riposte to Kubrick’s 2001 – A Space Odyssey, even though it drew upon a novel already ten years old.
According to some sources, director Andrei Tarkovsky did not involve Lem in the screenplay of the film. The screenplay adds sequences that refer directly to Earth and the origins of the protagonist Kris Kelvin and his family home, a familiar image from other Soviet directors such as Dovzhenko. The novel is set completely in space.
Andrei Tarkovsky (1932-86)
Tarkovsky was one of the few post Second World War Soviet directors to gain international recognition. His first three features after leaving film school (he had previously studied Arabic and worked as a geologist, unusual experiences for a filmmaker) all gained major international prizes. Solaris was his third film, but the first to get a UK release. It was followed into release by his second film Andrei Roublev, the story of a legendary icon painter which had difficulty in obtaining an export licence. Tarkovsky went on to make The Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) (also a science fiction influenced narrative) in the Soviet Union before moving abroad for three more films before his death from cancer aged 54.
Tarkovsky’s method tended to eschew ‘montage’ and to use relatively slowly paced long takes in a process of ‘sculpting time’. This became more pronounced in his later films which tended to attract small, but very enthusiastic audiences. In his later career Tarkovsky became synonymous with the popular view of the arthouse director, but Solaris represents a more accessible work.
The film and the book
Lem’s book is a classic of science fiction and Tarkovsky stays fairly close to the narrative of events aboard the space station. The main difference between the two narratives is the concentration in the novel on a satire of academic research – Kris refers to a series of theoretical ideas about the planet Solaris. Tarkovsky is more interested in the impact of the planet and its ‘living ocean’ on Kris himself. Although obviously taken with Lem’s story, Tarkovsky wanted to use the visual and aural power of cinema to the full. Even so, he maintains the central focus of the novel – the metaphysical questions about science and conscience – rather than developing the narrative into a mystery or a thriller. In this sense, Solaris represents a genuine attempt to create an ‘sf’ film.
The novel is currently in print and a ‘study guide’ can be found on the website at: http://www.wsu.edu:8080/~brians/science_fiction/solaris.html
Solaris, both as novel and film, belongs to one of the major narrative groups of science fiction – stories about the first contact between human beings and aliens. Such stories can be divided into two groups. The ‘alien invasion’ group sees Earth visited by aliens, who are usually portrayed as aggressive and are ultimately defeated through the application of specifically ‘human’ knowledge and personal qualities. These stories were introduced by H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The second group, common since Flash Gordon battled Ming the Merciless, sees humans meeting aliens in space. In both groups of stories the emphasis is on the humans’ response to an alien ‘threat’ (although occasionally the aliens are benign). It has been argued that the difference in Solaris is that more time is spent on the question of how both human and alien intelligence feel and then react to the meeting. How does the alien intelligence react to encounters with humans? How can human cultural activity explore such issues? Tarkovsky links this question to that of the ‘second chance’ – having your time again.
The following extract from the detailed website operated by ‘Underman’ (I have no idea who s/he is, but the site is well worth exploring) summarises Tarkovsky’s approach:
In 1973, the year after the completion of Solaris, Tarkovsky spoke about the film with a Russian interviewer, Z. Podguzhets. The text appears in Kitty Hunter-Blair’s book, named in the footnote to this section. This is my summary of part of the text. Please note, I use “man” here in a generic, not gender, sense.
As Tarkovsky read it, the key to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris was not the technological sophistication represented by space travel, but “the moral problems evident in the relationship between Kelvin and his conscience”. The spiritual implications of technology were more important to Tarkovsky than the technology itself. He described two opposing forces influencing man: one, a yearning for complete moral freedom; two, the search for meaning in his own existence. The inevitable result was a deep inner conflict and a battle with conscience, which Lem expressed through the relationship between Kelvin and his wife, Rheya, summoned back to physical form in station Solaris. Surrounded as he is by the ultimate products of technological achievement, with which he pursues his urge to explore the universe, Kelvin can do nothing to avoid coming face to face with the implications of his own past actions.
Kelvin can never distance himself from the forces that shaped his own development. However far he journeys, he will ultimately be drawn back to his own roots. Even at the limits of human endurance, Kelvin is a creature of the earth and the people who gave him existence. The dream of returning home and eradicating the mistakes of his past lies at the core of Kelvin’s being, but it takes an alien intelligence to perceive the dream.
Yet that alien intelligence, too, is subject to whatever laws may govern the universe. The inescapable fate bestowed by a spiritual, moral existence is to live with the conscience that arises from the actions a person takes, with no prospect of a second chance. Kelvin’s ultimate destiny is to return to the place where he was born. He can go nowhere else.
http://www.underview.com/2001/solaris.html (Unfortunately, this link is no longer valid – does anyone know if the text is available elsewhere?)
Time Within Time – The Diaries 1970-1986, Andrey Tarkovsky, translator Kitty Hunter- Blair, Faber and Faber, London, 1994.
Tarkovsky and the film critics
Film critics generally, and certainly in 1972 when Solaris was released, are often dismissive of science fiction. In Sight and Sound Spring 1973, the veteran film scholar Ivor Montagu celebrates the arrival of Tarkovsky’s films in the UK, but sees Solaris as the weakest, partly because it fails to represent scientists or science and instead concentrates on the personal. Tony Rayns in Monthly Film Bulletin of June 1973 refers to ‘kindergarten psychology’ and dismisses the film. Rayns suggests that 2001 was ‘totalitarian’ and Solaris is ‘humanist’, but where Kubrick was at least ‘visionary’, Tarkovsky is ‘merely reactionary’. However, Philip Strick, one of the few film critics with a detailed knowledge of science fiction claims that Solaris is:
“… the nearest the cinema has come to capturing the complexities of modern science fiction, with its intermingling of time and memory, acute uneasiness, and emphasis on elegance and style.” (Strick, Sight and Sound Winter 1972/3)
Solaris provides us with a chance to discuss what kinds of questions science fiction can ask when it is not being ‘predictive’. These may indeed turn out to be philosophical, and even spiritual, rather than ‘scientific’.
Roy Stafford 29 October 2001