Saturday 26 October 2019

From the archive: "Leviathan"

If the recent London Film Festival is anything to go on, something fascinating is happening in what used to be known as Soviet cinema. In titles as diverse as the tough institutional drama The Tribe, Ukraine doc Maidan and the pointed slasher The Man in the Orange Jacket, the spirit of rebellion hangs in the air; a power struggle is apparently underway – on screen, as in the regions – for the heart and soul of Mother Russia.

Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan positions something of that titanic struggle upfront in its title, although the ocean remains just out of shot, a supporting presence in a drama that otherwise moves in similar domestic circles to this director’s previous Elena. In the very heart of the Russian heartlands, two middle-aged pals are reunited: handyman Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) has called in his old Army sparring partner Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), now a lawyer in the city, to assist in appealing a verdict that handed his coastal property over to the town’s Putinite mayor Vadim (Roman Madyanov).

This David-and-Goliath throughline might – at an optimistic push – have made for a rousing crowdpleaser, but Zvyagintsev’s concerns are very specifically Russian: every scene is infused with equal parts vodka and philosophy. It’s a particular stroke of genius on the filmmaker’s part to stage one early confrontation between aggrieved and aggressor while all parties are in their cups: suddenly everyone’s swaying, swaggering – the film boasts some of the most convincing drunk acting you’ll see – and spilling over with empty threats.

Violence lurks in the background here, taking in both Kolya’s playfighting with his son and a set-piece shooting expedition in which empty bottles of grog are replaced as targets by portraits of deposed Soviet leaders, then – less amusingly – by other members of the expedition. As the appeal gets more complicated, this blokey roughhousing will tip over into actual bloodshed, although internal pressures will eventually prove Kolya’s downfall: we sense he may not be alone in needing to get his house in order.

Zvyagintsev’s usual eye for the Russian landscape is evident throughout, but it’s in the detail of narrative and mise-en-scene that Leviathan reveals itself as a portrait of a deeply conflicted nation. Within these frames, trace remnants of comradeship exist alongside self-serving capitalism, like the triptych of religious saints we see stuck to the same dashboard as a trio of topless pin-ups. Vadim’s confabs with the local Orthodox priest, meanwhile, only go to suggest how the most venal are often the most pious. (Perhaps they have more sins to atone for; perhaps faith is a luxury others can’t afford.)

In this director’s earlier films – 2003’s The Return and 2007’s The Banishment – the people seemed secondary to the landscapes they were passing through; since then, however, Zvyagintsev has clearly thought long and hard about the way he writes and casts roles. In both Elena and Leviathan, the characters are just as vividly lived-in and complex as their surroundings, maybe more so for the way they bash up against one another. He has a particular gift for writing tough, unsentimental women; we feel the loss of their bedrock stability whenever the macho men resume control.

For if it’s the property battle that first draws us into Leviathan, we soon begin to notice the carnage piling up around the edges of the frame: the wrecked hulls of old boats, the abandoned church the town’s youth gathers in, the skeleton of a whale Kolya’s son finds himself confronted by at one point, all precursors to the broken homes and vulnerable communities Zvyagintsev eventually centres in on.

In the eyes of this absorbing, expansive picture, this is what all this chestbeating and dickswinging results in, and what dooms even the humblest and best-intentioned of citizens. In Leviathan’s final moments, the camera returns to those same snapshots of the heartlands we saw in the opening minutes. This time, they’re frozen over, coldly indifferent; you might call them uninhabitable.

(MovieMail, November 2015)

Leviathan screens on BBC2 tonight at 12.10am. 

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