Cannes 2014: big fish to fry – Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan

The director of The Return returns with a surprising, weighty and damning fable of contemporary provincial Russia.

Geoff Andrew
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In 2003 Andrey Zvyagintsev made a splash with his feature debut The Return, an almost painfully tense drama which profited from an astute grasp of human psychology, a sure feeling for landscape, and a subtle play with genre conventions. His next film, however – The Banishment (2007) – was something of a disappointment; his admiration for Tarkovsky was too conspicuous both in the overemphatic symbolism and in a certain ponderousness in its pacing.

Elena was a return to form, and to the Zvyagintsev recipe added resonances that clearly related the characters’ situation to that of Russia itself. His fourth feature, Leviathan, continues in that vein, and may be seen as a development, in some respects, upon all of its predecessors.

Its large ambitions are discernible from the bold, extended opening sequence, as Philip Glass’s music accompanies striking ‘Scope images of a massive mountainous coastal landscape strewn with the skeletal remains of rotting boats. It’s hard to tell – this is summer in the far north – whether it’s dusk or dawn as a man leaves his house and drives through the tundra to a station where he meets another man.

Only rather later do we discover why Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovitchenkov) has come to visit Kolia (Alexey Serebryakov), his attractive young second wife Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and his teenage son from his previous marriage, Roma (Sergey Pokhodaev): Shelevyat (Roman Madyanov), the local mayor, has slapped a compulsory order on Kolia’s family home, offering risible compensation for the prime site where he plans to build something that will be to his own personal advantage. Dmitri, an old army friend of Kolia, is now a hotshot lawyer living in Moscow, and he’s gathered some highly incriminating evidence which he believes will force the mayor to back down, notwithstanding the verdict of an inevitably corrupt court.

Thus the scene is set for a dark suspense drama where you would probably expect Dmitri – sharply turned out compared to his handyman friend, and sharp in his knowledge of the law – to take on and overcome Shelevyat, whose loathsome arrogance and egotism are all too conspicuous when he turns up, drunk and backed up by his heavies, to crow about his court victory and taunt the hot-tempered Kolia by demanding he move out of his home forthwith.

But Zvyagintsev never plays according to strict genre expectations; he has bigger fish to fry, and after a surprisingly comic second act involving much imbibing of vodka, shooting at presidential portraits and a sudden, crucial turn in the plot, we’re led into a final act which reveals the sheer weight of the corrupt, vengeful and violent forces Kolia is up against. It would be unfair to reveal too much of a narrative which takes in sexual and familial jealousy, the moral bankruptcy of the political, judicial and even the religious authorities, and a whole host of betrayals. Suffice to say that the film offers a deeply pessimistic vision of life in the provinces in today’s Russia.

Undoubtedly, Zvyagintsev is a remarkably talented filmmaker: again his delineation of his deftly drawn, beautifully acted characters’ motives, his eloquent but faintly mysterious, even mythic use of place and his ability to create suspense through a masterly control of atmosphere are put to very effective use.

That said, the sometimes heavy symbolism – yes, the remains of a beached whale are on view – feels a little like a carry-over from The Banishment’s array of Christian allusions and iconography, while it might be felt that the seemingly inexorable series of events of the final 40 minutes falls a tad too tidily into place. This writer, at any rate, felt that the film finally didn’t quite deliver as much as the first 90 minutes had promised. But then again, it promises so much more than most movies, and it would be profoundly churlish – not to say erroneous – to describe Leviathan as anything other than a substantial and very impressive achievement.

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