Andrei Zvyagintsev: not your token Russian

In an age of disinformation, sincerity is political. The films of Andrei Zvyagintsev are powerful precisely because of this.

Natalia Antonova
22 June 2017
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May 2017: Andrei Zvyagintsev's new film Loveless wins the Cannes Jury Prize Award. Image: Wild Bunch. When a top-down political system adopts fake news and general disinformation as policy, sincere sentiment can be automatically politicised — simply because it has a way of cutting through the bullshit. The same goes for humour, especially the really good and really pointed kind of humor.

This politicisation isn’t just performed by the state itself. It’s performed by everyone who gets a speaking part in public discourse. The films of Andrei Zvyagintsev are a good example of that, particularly the way in which they’re discussed within his native Russia.

We’re already used to self-proclaimed Russian patriots, be they officials, random internet trolls, or people genuinely insecure about Russia’s image and role in the world, accusing Zvyagintsev of deliberately making bleak films about Russia for the sake of “impressing russophobic western film festival judges” or whatever. Their arguments are old and stale, but, in a country that loves a good moral panic around a film or a work of art, they are also expedient. 

What’s more interesting to me is the argument that “Zvyagintsev is kind of blah, and people abroad still respond to him because he’s an exotic, balalaika-toting Russian. Oh, and if you defend him, you’re probably also insecure about Russia’s role and image in the world.”  This argument hasn’t just popped up in the press, as per Maria Kuvshinova’s article which I’ve linked to above. I’ve heard it a lot in Moscow and beyond in the days since Zvyagintsev’s latest film Loveless came out in Russia. A critic friend of mine in St Petersburg (definitely not the chest-beating patriot type) complained that “people talk about Zvyagintsev as if he actually matters, when they should be talking about the fact that he’s just the designated Russian at most film festivals and among most critics.”

Now, I firmly believe that the arts in Russia should be vigorously defended. Even if you don’t like something, please go ahead and defend it — there is a crackdown going on, and it’s likely to get worse. It’s not the time to be smirkingly apolitical, and it’s certainly not the time to go: “Oh, I’ll actually only speak out in favor of someone if I’m into their stuff.”

Kuvshinova argues that Zvyagintsev is “doing OK,” and hence doesn’t need any impassioned defence. But as recent history has demonstrated, an artist or filmmaker in Russia can be “doing OK” in one minute and in deep trouble the next. This affects all artists, including those that are seen (sometimes arbitrarily) as “pro-Kremlin” instead of “anti-Kremlin”. Whether the issue is censorship, or harassment, or a criminal probe, or all of the above, everyone’s entered in the great Who Will Get Screwed Next lottery. It’s pointless to pretend otherwise 

Of course, nobody is required to like Zvyagintsev’s films. Some might describe them as too humourless. Some think this particular director takes himself too seriously

Of course, nobody is required to like Zvyagintsev’s films. Some might describe them as too humourless. Some think this particular director takes himself too seriously. A producer friend of mine in Russia sees Zvyagintsev as someone who “judges his characters too harshly.” I personally was even yelled at once in Dubai (of all places to get yelled at about highbrow cinema!) by a very intelligent someone who suggested that Zvyagintsev’s films are “pretentious crap for depressives”.

But there are also plenty of reasons as to why Zvyagintsev inspires a passionate following — and they go broader and deeper than any political context. Unlike my producer friend, for example, I see this particular director as painfully compassionate. Loveless, a film about a divorcing couple whose son goes missing, clicked for me because it made me suffer right alongside its heroes — sure, they’re stupid, and selfish, and insincere, and that’s the drama of their existence right there, in their casual lack of awareness as they hurtle towards disaster. 


The final scene of Loveless ends on a poignant note, set firmly in the post-Crimea Russia of today. I’ve known myself to be stupid, and selfish, and insincere, and I’ve cheerfully hurtled toward plenty of disasters in my life at breakneck speed (who knows how many more I can look forward to), and I was humbled and touched, as opposed to repelled or offended, by what I saw on screen. For me, the horror at the heart of Loveless has nothing to do with Zvyagintsev trying to punish his characters, or to make some grand political statement, for that matter — even though this director obviously has plenty to say about the state of hearts and minds in Russia.

Instead, the horror has everything to do with how the sadness of their situation is made casually relatable. It’s in the way that in her leading role as a hapless mother, Marina Spivak looks like a Renaissance Madonna. It’s in how Alexei Rozin’s inattentive dad can drop a child into playpen with a small thud. The character is revealed to be too rigid to learn from terrible past experience with this single thoughtless gesture, even as the audience remains aware of the real pain and loss this man suffers from. 

Modern day Russia has offered the world far too little, particularly as far as new ideas go

Kuvshinova is right to point out that modern day Russia has offered the world far too little, particularly as far as new ideas go (the pleasures of retrograde conservatism that Russia tries to export are certainly nothing new). Yet I think she’s wrong to suggest that Zvyagintsev has gained international attention simply for being a token Russian, in the right place at the right time. Certainly, Russia being in the news a lot has helped him. But there is also the fact that many people respond to his films emotionally, their hearts are cracked open, their thinking begins to shift. A social worker friend of mine in California, for example, once told me that “the sense of awful futility” on display in Zvyagintsev’s previous film, the Oscar-nominated “Leviathan” resonated deeply for her because she faces that same kind of futility as part of her job. 

There is something oppressively Biblical about fighting a battle that cannot be won, though there are also battles that must be fought regardless of the outcome. A director like Zvyagintsev gets that, and this is why people get him. 

The profound crisis of thought in Russia, a crisis greater than politics, though certainly hastened by political opportunists, has meant that the sincerity of a filmmaker like Zvyagintsev can filed away under “he betrayed his country, in which everything is OK - hear that? It’s totally OK! WE’RE ALL FINE HERE” (which is what government trolls do) or else simply played for laughs. 

But as a viewer and a writer who became attracted to Zvyagintsev’s work without giving a crap about “what it all means for Russia” — simply because his work punched me in the heart and then re-started it and re-set its rhythm — I do hope we can all one day either love or hate or ignore Zvyagintsev for our own, perhaps imperfect, but genuine reasons.


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