Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
I don’t want to service the viewer. Instead, I want to offer them an uncomfortable reflection of the truth of society, human nature and realistic characters.
Back in 2014, Andrey Zvyagintsev made a huge splash internationally with his film LEVIATHAN. It racked up a staggering amount of awards and critical acclaim, including a Golden Globe win and Academy Award nomination. Having already won the jury prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, his latest, LOVELESS, is poised for similar success. The sobering drama is about a married couple (played by Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) going through a bitter divorce when their young son (Matvey Novikov) disappears. It’s provocative, riveting and absolutely haunting.
Speaking through a translator at the film’s recent Los Angeles press day, Zvyagintsev and I spoke about his bold artistic choices to spotlight things not often seen in Russian films, tackling taboo topics not seen in most films in general.
The films that resonate with me the most are those about marital discord. And yet I have a happy marriage. What made you want to make this movie?
The idea started in 2011 when we originally intended to buy the rights to the Bergman movie SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE. For four years, we struggled to get the rights. It was with an intention to do a remake of that film. There were four rights holders. Three of them agreed and the fourth one did not at all. While we were looking for the rights, we had started and filmed LEVIATHAN and the situation was still unresolved. I really wanted to explore the relationships between two people in a marriage where there’s a feeling of emptiness and discord.
Oleg Negin, my screenwriting partner, and I were toying around with this idea of marriage and then, in 2015, Oleg came across an article about a volunteer organization called Visa Alert. They are volunteers who look for runaway children and people who go missing. We had a really strong emotional response to a particular sub-group of these volunteers. We understood that this marital story of two people in a marriage clashing and this story of a runaway child actually go together really well – that there are sparks flying if you put these two ideas together.
Your film feels very specific to the culture, but there’s a universality there too.
I hope. It’s obviously a Russian film in the Russian language. It’s also the center of Russian culture- filmed in Moscow. It’s filled with details of Russian culture. However, it’s filled with deep human controversies and that’s a universal idea and although the colors of it are Russian, the relationship and human dynamic is by far and large a universal story of human nature.
Zheyna’s mother is very old school Russian and she clashes with her daughter’s new school motherhood.
Zheyna is a 32-year-old woman and she is a contemporary woman who’s part of this new generation, whereas her mother is obviously old school. She’s a monster filled with anxieties and complexes that stem from being a Soviet woman. She carries this on her shoulders and is filled with fear. Our lead character is the decent of that. Her direct reaction to growing up with a mother like that is to be this contemporary woman.
In America, we have this thing that’s a “likability” issue. Studios find it difficult to invest in films where characters aren’t all likable. Was this something that ever crossed your mind writing these characters?
I feel like the carrier of Russian culture, which, in essence, is the last thing I have to worry about is the viewer. My main point is to act like a mirror. So for me, it was important to show this character in her true form and nature rather than worry about the viewer’s reaction. My goal of not making a film for the viewers is in the sense that I don’t want to service the viewer. Instead I want to offer them an uncomfortable reflection of the truth of society, human nature and realistic characters. It’s a film for an adult viewer. Obviously there comes a time for films to be made for entertainment, but right now, that’s not the point of this film.
I loved how this was structured. I wound up sympathizing with these parents by the end of the film.
You are the rare viewer who feels empathy towards her. I am grateful. [laughs]
I’m dark. Switching tracks here, was it easier to get financing for this after the success from your previous films?
It’s in direct correspondence. It’s like a rule of law. It was much easier. Even in the synopsis stage, we had three pages of text where we started the entire process going into production.
Did you want to achieve anything from a technical standpoint?
There were no ambitions except for the two erotic scenes. From a technical point of view, we decided to shoot it in one take, both scenes, without exploring sexuality in an exploitative way. For me, it was important to have contrasting light without details of genitals and it was very hard and I was very afraid. If they were to feel fake, or like Playboy magazine would, it would be very unrealistic – and I wanted it to be a realistic scene from their life. I told the actors that if one of these two scenes didn’t work out, I’d have to delete both of them because there needs to be a symmetry between their lives. This was the hardest part of the film.
It also impacts the narrative as well. Zhenya’s expressing this raw, vulnerable confession in a raw, naked state. It goes hand in hand.
Yes. Honesty. She’s very open in this scene. She sees herself through this prism of her new project – this new love. She realizes she’s never been in love before and she understands herself through him. It’s extremely important to see this physiology. Once again, you’re a rare viewer, because in Russia, I constantly get questioned, ‘Why?! Why did you make this erotic scene?!’
It’s the Soviet legacy. There’s no sex in Russia. It’s a famous for it.
I guess I’m showing my Americanness. How was it to find these perfect locations? They say a lot about the characters.
All the interiors – Anton’s apartment, Masha’s apartment – they were all built in a pavilion. In terms of the oasis with the river and the trees and the tall grass, we were extremely lucky to find this within Moscow. I was particularly impressed by how you felt like you were in a forest with these tall grasses and a river that had beavers in it in the center of Moscow. When you raised your head, you could see the tall buildings.
Are there certain challenges you set for yourself on each film – or do those organically arise?
The story was my greatest challenge. It’s not just the next step. I want to not just make the next film. I want to talk about something important – something that, at its core, is filled with dissonance. Something important – not just a story.
LOVELESS plays for a one-week award qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles starting on December 1. It opens in mid-February 2018. Read our review here.
Header Photo: Andrey Zvyagintsev (in blue jacket) directs LOVELESS. Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.