It's not that you shouldn't ask Andrey Zvyagintsev about Vladimir Putin. After all, the Russian director's last film, the 2014 Oscar-nominated tragedy Leviathan, about a small-town man who objects when the local mayor tries to snatch away his property, was widely read as a defiant critique of the corrupt Russian state.
On the publicity circuit, though, Zvyagintsev played coy, batting away queries from reporters who wanted him to cough up some anti-Putin copy. And now here he is, touring with Loveless, a bleak and beautiful thriller about a child's disappearance, which many critics view as a metaphor for the post-Communist state's selfishness and disregard for its own offspring. But Zvyagintsev suggests it is unfair to look to him to reinforce Western judgments of his country and its politics.
"If a U.S. director would make a film about the pressing events of the days, criticizing the social order and society, I would doubt that someone in Russia would say, 'This film is about Trump's America,'" he says, speaking through a translator during last September's Toronto International Film Festival.
His producer, Alexander Rodnyansky, who also worked with Zvyagintsev on Leviathan and Elena (2011), takes a seat next to the director and offers his assessment.
"When Andrey says he doesn't consider himself a social and political critic of contemporary Russia, he means he's not a political director," Rodnyansky says, without aid of a translator. "We have many more movies criticizing the government and the situation in Russia, but they don't have artistic value, they don't have something that makes these movies work internationally. When Loveless premiered [at Cannes, where it won the Jury Prize last May], we were approached by different people saying it is a story that could happen to them."
In fact, the film, a devastating portrait of a viperous marriage in the midst of collapse, which is currently in the running for a foreign-language Oscar, was inspired by a very non-Russian source: Ingmar Bergman's iconic Scenes from a Marriage.
At a postscreening TIFF Q&A the night before this interview, Zvyagintsev explained that he had visited Bergman at his home on the Swedish island of Faro after the legendary director had seen his 2003 wilderness drama, The Return. The two men discussed the possibility of a Russian remake of Scenes, but it failed to come to fruition.
"I think Leo Tolstoy commented once to a journalist, I believe it was about a Shakespeare sonnet, that everybody wants to write the story of a marriage but nobody wants to write the story about what happens after that," Zvyagintsev told the TIFF audience, by way of explaining his interest.
Loveless is an unremitting and grim take on that subject matter. By the time we meet them, Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) have spun furiously away from each other. She spends her days at the spa she runs, primping for her new lover, while her soon-to-be ex juggles a mid-level office job with the increasing demands of his pregnant girlfriend. The couple come together only to quarrel over the corroding remains of their union: their apartment, which they're putting up for sale, and their 12-year-old son, Alyosha, which neither one wants to parent.
When the boy goes missing, and the authorities respond with bureaucratic ineffectiveness, Zhenya and Boris seek the help of a volunteer organization that has been created to do what the state is either too stretched or indifferent to do. As the searchers fan out through the city's denuded wintry forests and abandoned industrial parks, and an apocalyptic dread begins to take hold, the couple visits Zhenya's estranged mother in the countryside, thinking that perhaps Alyosha has sought refuge with her.
It seems, Zvyagintsev is told, that the only hopeful element in the entire scenario is the volunteers.
"I don't know if there's a saying in English that 'hope dies last,'" he responds enigmatically. "I don't know about the volunteers themselves, but it's the civic initiative that may be an answer." He adds that the state "has not broken down, it's still going on. But it deserves better."
Is he a hopeful person?
"My children live and study in Russia," he replies.
Is that an answer?
"Maybe it's an escape from the answer," he admits, "because I simply don't have the opportunity to live and study elsewhere. But I would be looking for some other ways if I wasn't sure that there was hope for renewal, for change."
His films may not be overtly political, but he does hope they spur some sort of change. During the Q&A the previous night, Zvyagintsev was asked by an audience member to clarify one aspect of the ending of Loveless (which shall go unrevealed here).
He explains now that he would rather not provide resolution. "We have this expectation that, before the final titles roll, everything will come together. And if in the end it creates this spiritually uplifting thing, and it presents the hero in a different kind of light, the one we would like to define ourselves with, the hero, the victor? Then there's a great risk that this hero, who we are trying to identify ourselves with, will be the winner. He wins the circumstances instead of you, and you are left on your own couch, self-satisfied. The open-ended finality [of Loveless] offers you not to be self-satisfied.
"I will never forget when, as a young man, I was told a story – maybe it is a legend – that when Mozart, when he was really young, when he heard an imbalanced and imperfect chord, he would run upstairs and he would complete it. This is the message that drives the viewer: You have to change yourself. And you have to change, win over the inertia that exists inside you."
Loveless opens in Montreal and Toronto on Feb. 23.