The rise of Andrei Zvyagintsev

The recent successes of Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev is a reminder of how artists are pigeon-holed into national frames — and how Russian culture has become all-too parochial.

Maria Kuvshinova
22 June 2017

Director Andrey Zvyagintsev poses after winning the Cannes Jury Prize Award for "Loveless". (c) Xu Jinquan/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Russian film director Andrei Zvyagintsev recently won the Cannes festival jury prize for his film Loveless. In his (dis-) honour, we translate this essay from our partners at Colta.ru.

It’s a paradox of our globalised world: on the one hand, the tropes of “Russian hackers”, “the Russian spy Donald Trump” and “Russian agent Marine Le Pen” are all part of their own countries’ internal debate and aren’t connected to Russia’s real influence. On the other, the consequences of our pranks are delayed, and not all of them are negative. 

Naturally, there is no monolithic west, but there is a media sphere, a general impression. Europe is another matter, but the emergence in the American media (starting with the 2014 Sochi Olympics and Pussy Riot) of something called “Russia”, of which little had been heard since 1991, has led to its being superimposed on other current trends. How does this happen?

There is, for example, a general demand nowadays for a feminist reinterpretation of history and the rediscovery of underrated women of both the past and the present. Institutions have been hard at work in this field, and now we have English translations, in two different editions, of works by the early 20th century writer Teffi (described as a “female Chekhov”) and the American video distribution company Criterion is bringing out a DVD set of the films of Larisa Shepitko, an icon of sixties and seventies Soviet cinema who was killed in a car crash at the age of 40. Scouts from Vogue have discovered a microscopic feminist fashion brand in St Petersburg, so that they can talk to its creator about the fate of women under Putin and write two features on it in quick succession. 

Major publishers are meanwhile showing great interest in Russia-linked subjects on the borders of politics and culture: the New York Times devoted a long article to the public conflict between film director Alexei Uchitel and Duma Member (and former Crimean General Prosecutor) Natalia Poklonskaya. 

But these are merely individual attempts to extract headlines from the situation in the supposedly intellectual landscape. America’s general view of us is more widely available from the sketches on NBC’s Saturday Night Live, where Putin appears stripped to the waist with a cross round his neck, his childhood friends wear traditional high fur caps and the brilliant Kate McKinnon appears, in dowdy clothes and a headscarf, as “Olya Povlatsky”

Kate McKinnon plays Olya Povlatsky for SNL. Source: Saturday Night Live / Youtube.

This is a woman from a provincial Russian village, who wheezes horribly when she tries to laugh, spends her life asking god to take her out of Russia, has been planning her funeral since she was a child, tries (unsuccessfully) to go on holiday to Donetsk, doesn’t know the meaning of the word “dream”, is dating a dog and once went to Sochi to drown herself in the sea, but couldn’t reach the water as the queue of aspirant suicides was too long.  

These sketches reach us now and then and are even translated by enthusiasts. But we need to understand that there is nothing specifically defamatory about them: they feed into the general SNL context where everything and everybody is there to be mocked — the show is a grand project aimed at thinking through the contradictions of the day. (And despite the quality of some editions of SNL’s Russian clone Evening Urgant, fronted by popular host Ivan Urgant, its lack of freedom and a mission will never allow it to approach the brilliance of the original.) Olya Povlatsky lines up next to homophobes, the old bag who called Obama by the N-word, Trump, Hillary and an elderly actress who began her career in patriarchal Hollywood as a prop. So that’s what we look like. As Olya Povlatsky herself says: “What can Russia export, apart from snow and homophobia”?   

The collapse of the Soviet project made Russian culture parochial, and condemned perceptions of it to the ghetto of national stereotypes

The enthusiasm of Perestroika has long evaporated. We’ve had no success in integrating into civilisation and Russia, rising again out of the waves of news, has gradually begun to be seen as an anti-space hostile to humans — which makes you cringe, but forces you to stare into it There’s nothing new in this: Thomas Mann saw Russia in exactly the same terms, writing about eastern Europe with a mixture of entrancement and repugnance. On the one hand, there were uncouth students with no underwear beneath their trousers; on the other, the “slightly Asiatic-slanting eyes” of Clavdia Chauchat. On the one hand were vodka, salted mushrooms and cheap cigarettes; on the other, Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Leskov, Tolstoy and “holy Russian literature”.

The phenomenon of Andrei Zvyagintsev is directly related to this. 

The collapse of the Soviet project made Russian culture parochial, and condemned perceptions of it to the ghetto of national stereotypes. A major film festival is a showcase which always has a sales stall behind it. Any ambitious auteur from outside the big centres needs to be able to sell his or her background without disappointing their international audience. There’s nothing wrong with this: a superficial glance, ignoring unnecessary detail and justification, can sometimes be the surest one. Among those who have got to the top of this game in our new millennium are, apart from Zvyagintsev, Paolo Sorrentino and Yorgos Lanthimos, who have succeeded in transcending their national specifics to win the right to an independent voice, international finance and the ability to attract American, British and French stars. However, while Lanthimos had to move from Greece to London with all his philosophical concepts, Sorrentino had the Italian cinema industry, embedded in the European market, behind him.

But when a director has little or nothing behind them, it’s difficult to scale the heights of auteurship. The fractured humanism and individual style of such true Russian artists as Alexei Balabanov and Alexander Mindadze are completely expendable or only formally required (Barabanov, whose gravestone reads “director, member of the European Film Academy”, was deeply hurt to discover that he wasn’t admitted to the Academy for his work, but to fill a quota).

The trailer for Alexander Sokurov's Francofonia. Source: Music Box Films / Youtube.

The only master who was permitted was the fresh winner of an honorary Euro-“Oscar”, Alexander Sokurov, who spoke about French wartime collaboration in French with French people in “Francofonia” and always shut down standing ovations. But Sokurov earned his right long ago, long before the first Putin term, and still fuelled largely by the energy given out by perceptions of Perestroika.

All the rest, even director Kirill Serebrennikov, who has staged theatre productions all over Europe, are seen as second rate at international film festivals, part of a large international chorus. It’s not just a question of politics: content and style also play their part. We are still insufficiently savage to have a barbarian charm, but already insufficiently civilised to talk to the art establishment in their own language. What does a person with (or without) a Russian State Institute of Cinematography degree have to offer the French, for example, with their school leaving Baccalaureates that include an obligatory Philosophy exam?

And now, against this backdrop, we see Andrei Zvyagintsev, who quotes Kierkegaard in his interviews and references Brueghel and Dürer in his films. In terms of content, his 2003 film The Return, which won him a Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, was seen in other countries as a political work (which flummoxed Russian critics as well as the director himself, whose mind was on more eternal matters), a reflection of nostalgia for a strong hand (his father, Stalin) and an analysis of Putin, who was still a complete enigma at the time. In aesthetic terms, the film seemed to have a familiar visual echo running the spectrum from Tarkovsky to, again, Dürer; as something that rings a bell. 

After the success of The Return, the naïve auteur imagined he would now be permitted to be an independent artist, without reference to his nationality, and in 2007 made The Banishment — an extremely vague existential drama based on a short story by William Saroyan and with a Swedish actress in the central role. It was received coolly (despite a Cannes prize for the leading lady) and Zvyagintsev quickly corrected his mistake and switched to focusing on Russian reality for his next three works. 

Doomed artists, complex artists and original thinkers can only exist where there is banality and normality and where any deviation entrances and shocks — this is why horror movies have never been popular in Russia. A representative of anti-space has, however, to show the world this anti-space, inhabited not by humans but by anti-material, and do it in a sober, orderly manner, without creative twists and turns and with familiar quotations — and all this from Russia without love is to be produced by the Dardenne brothers, whose own films again and again scale new heights of humanism. The audience will spend two hours gazing into the abyss, be blown away and return to the light — it’s interesting and thrilling and just as safe as cursing Putin for his attacks on the Gogol Center from a stage in Paris. 

Zvyagintsev himself has, of course, nothing to answer for and is in general a far from a calculating person. But his rise during Putin’s first term doesn’t seem like a coincidence to me, and the superficial analogies of The Return audience turned out to be true, like everything superficial. In my imagination Putin, his Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and Zvyagintsev often merge into one person — a lover of beauty (in his own conception of the word) dreaming of speaking to the whole world; a post-Soviet man without much confidence in himself who just happened to be in the right place at the right time and in the depths of his soul knows this. They go together: Putin and Medinsky create the anti-space and Zvyagintsev describes it in well-chosen international Esperanto.   

Zvyagintsev's 2014 Leviathan caused uproar for its unflinching depiction of "Russian reality", even though it was based on a real life story from the United States. Source: CC BY-SA 4.0 Roman Yurochkin / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.This ambivalence around Zvyagintsev’s success is probably well understood by even his hottest fans, who time and again try to prove something to invisible opponents by brandishing festival awards and foreign newspapers at them. The mass hysteria around these films makes any serious discussion of them impossible: a couple of years ago two critics, out of an audience of 100 people, tried to analyse his 2014 film Leviathan, using quotations from the book of the same name written by Thomas Hobbes, as well as showing clips of films by director Sam Peckinpah, but the audience, realising that the critics didn’t share their delight, immediately began to look and behave like extras from The Walking Dead; I have never seen so many red, rolling eyes at one time. Are these films good or bad? The status of their maker is such that the answer is unimportant.

It’s pure chance: we have never known Zvyagintsev outside his international fame. After two Golden Lions from Venice in 2003 he was re-exported to Russia as a star of global significance and a “new Tarkovsky”. And I feel that the passionate defence of a director who is generally doing well is an attempt to identify with a Russia that enjoys legitimate representation in the world, and to feel part of a context where we are at the receiving end of Golden Palms, and not sanctions. We wear tuxedos, not tarpaulin boots. We have very few opportunities for such self-identification these days — basically, Zvyagintsev is all we’ve got. And those who call him a vilifier and Russophobe (as though you could vilify Russia’s Federal Penitentiary Service, heir to Stalin’s Gulag; prisons for gays; asset grabbing or an average monthly pension equivalent to 200 Euros) are in fact attempting to bolster their own self-esteem in the same international field (by denying his abilities) and pretty much claiming “we couldn’t be bothered”. Olya Povlatsky also wants to speak to the city and the world.

In the future, Zvyagintsev will probably make a few more attempts to ditch the balalaika and join the Bergmans of the film world. But it would be so much more interesting to watch this Antaeus battling heroically with the country that bore him.        

Translated by Liz Barnes.

Read on: in an age of disinformation, sincerity is political. The films of Andrei Zvyagintsev are powerful precisely because of this.

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