Loveless and A Gentle Creature – two flawed but brilliant Russian films

Andrey Zvyaginstev’s Loveless is not as good as his earlier masterpiece, Leviathan. But it has some moments of brilliance, and even at less than his best, Zvyagintsev captures the essence of life in the epoch of capitalist decay better than any other film-maker I know.

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya Photo: Wildbunch movies press kit

While Leviathan (which I reviewed in this post) showed ordinary working people at the very edge of the inhabited world being crushed by a rapacious and parasitic bourgeoisie, Loveless turns its gaze inward, to the middle class, in the relative comfort of an apartment block in suburban Moscow. The story centres on a couple, Boris and Zhenya, in the last stages of a bitter breakdown of their marriage. They are held together by their common financial interest in an apartment which they can’t sell.  Every time a buyer shows interest, they have to come and do the sales pitch as a couple, and revive the illusion of a normal family inhabiting the apartment. This charade is taking its toll on everyone’s nerves.

Alexey Rozin as Boris
Photo: Wildbunch Movies press kit

At first we try to take sides in this domestic nightmare. But it’s hard to decide which of the two is the more unlikable. Boris’s chief concern is whether the divorce will affect his job in marketing, a world where appearances matter. The boss is a conservative Christian who has sacked others for less. Boris’s strategy in dealing with this danger is to hook himself up with another woman before anyone notices the switch. As long as he has someone to bring to the office party, he should be all right. He is already in a new relationship anyway, and the new girlfriend, younger and softer than the hardened wife, is already pregnant.

In fact, both ex-partners have found new relationships better suited to their ceaseless quest for self-advancement and material comfort. Zhenya has struck it rich with an older man, who has a lot more money, and who provides her with meals at fancy restaurants, compliments, a nicer apartment, better sex – every material indulgence and emotional reassurance that she craves.

Matvey Novikov as Alyosha Photo: Wildbunch Movies press kit

But as well as the apartment, there is another snag that keeps Boris and Zhenya entangled in their common past: an unhappy, shy pre-adolescent son, Alyosha, who perpetually disappoints and embarrasses both parents, and whose behaviour contributes to one potential buyer losing interest in the apartment. Neither parent wants custody of the boy when they separate.  In the course of a particularly vicious row, Zhenya suggests packing him off to boarding school, and the army as soon as he is old enough – the Russian institutions of choice for dumping unwanted sons. She blurts out that she never loved the boy, just as she never loved Boris.

The taunt was calculated to hurt Boris, but it was not just Boris who heard it. Crushed behind the bathroom door, in a silent scream of pain, we see the boy himself has heard everything. The couple carry on their row unawares. A short time later, the boy has disappeared.

If the boy’s existence kept the couple in a close, warring proximity, his disappearance forces them even closer together, and raises the heat of their mutual loathing still higher. A cop arrives to interview the couple for the missing person report. He asks a few questions, satisfies himself that the couple have not actually murdered their son, and having established that, quickly loses all interest in the case. A murder would be worth investigating, but a missing child? Such disappearances are far too common and too complicated for the police to waste their time on. He’s probably just gone to stay with a friend or relative – he’ll turn up by himself in a few days, most likely, the cop assures them. He suggests a voluntary agency to contact if that doesn’t happen.

The only possible relative is Zhenya’s mother, and the sullen couple go out to pay her a visit. The boy is not there, but we get a glimpse of the bitter family hatreds that underlie Zhenya’s insecurities and cravings.

A school friend of Alyosha is asked to help with the search, and leads the searchers to some sinister abandoned buildings, where rain from the last storm drips through the roof, and broken glass and syringes are strewn over the floors. These are the places the boy liked to spend time, the friend explains to the shocked parents. As winter approaches and the search leads them ever deeper into this parallel world that exists alongside their own, a stone’s throw from their apartment, the world of abandoned children turning up in hospitals and mangled bodies in morgues, the couple’s anguish increases. But their misery never transcends what it was at the beginning: self-absorption, self-concern, self-pity. At the heart of the world of middle-class comforts, Zvyagintsev finds an immense emotional black hole.

It is possible to tell a bleak, emotionally demanding tale like this in such a way that the audience nonetheless comes away feeling satisfied and even uplifted. Shakespeare’s tragedies have this effect, and so does Leviathan. Loveless goes out of its way to preclude that. There is, for example, not a single character in the movie with whom we can identify. Not even the poor child: he evokes in us unbounded pity and compassion, but nothing more than that. He hardly speaks a word of his own, and projects no personality – we never get a chance to get to know him as a character in his own right. Thus he remains for us, the audience, nothing but another more or less anonymous neglected child.

The director’s technical and artistic mastery is beyond question. His immersion in the traditions of Russian cinema and literature, and his dedication to extending them, is everywhere in evidence. (The long pans around a frozen pond and scenes of the search as the daylight fades, setting scenes of human degradation amidst the austere beauty of the Russian landscape, bring to mind scenes from the movies of Andrey Tarkovsky, especially The Stalker.) One can only conclude that this is a conscious and deliberate decision by the director: that to allow the slightest cause for optimism or hope would be a disservice to the truth, which Zvyagintsev cannot abide.

That is a dangerous road to travel for a film-maker, or any other storyteller. To ruthlessly exclude all hope of change, no matter what the motivation for doing so, can only lead to a nihilistic and misanthropic vision – which in turn, ultimately, can only lead towards political reaction. Loveless doesn’t go that far, but it goes right to the brink.

 

Sergei Loznitsa’s A Gentle Creature is a similarly bleak tale, although in this case it is very easy to empathise with the central character. A woman living a solitary rural life; her husband is in jail. A parcel she has sent him gets returned without explanation. She decides that the only way she is going to discover what the problem is, and ensure that the parcel reaches her husband, is to deliver it to the prison herself. This requires that she chuck in her job and take a long train journey to the prison.

Vasilina Makovtseva in A Gentle Creature. Photo: Wildbunch films

The name of her destination is given, but this is one detail the significance of which might be lost on audiences outside Russia. The town where the prison is located is Magadan – in the far east of Russia, on the shores of the Sea of Okhotsk. Magadan was the hub of the Stalinist labour camps in the Soviet era. Of all the places in Russia, these far-eastern prison-towns have changed least in recent years. (See my post about a visit to Komsomolsk-na-Amur, for a sense of this).

For most of the movie, the woman stonily ignores the conversations going on around her, including the questions, comments, friendly invitations and insults directed towards her. As she hauls the huge case on board a crowded bus, a heated argument breaks out among the other passengers – some complaining about the box, others defending her right to bring it. She neither takes offence, nor smiles, nor shows fear of the implied threats, nor acknowledges her defenders.

Her dignity forbids her from pleading. When she arrives at the jail and asks what was the problem with the parcel, the official on the other side of the window gets irritated with her questions, and slams the hatch shut – ending not just her inquiries but those of all the other people in line behind her. Some of them blame her, others encourage her to come back tomorrow and try again. She responds to neither. We get the impression that this is someone with long experience of such situations.

Occasionally, she bargains. She cannot achieve her goal without any help at all. But every offer of help, even the smallest and most commonplace, comes loaded with ulterior motives, and a price to be paid that is not immediately obvious. “I’m the cheapest in town!” says the taxi driver who picks her up from the train station. “The prison is great for business in this town. I can show you a cheap place to stay.” He soon reveals himself to be a pimp. The cheap place to stay is a brothel, inhabited by puffy-faced and utterly brutalised drunks. She negotiates with such people, under conditions of mounting difficulty, each compromise bringing her closer to the gangster who is the real power in the town.

The only exceptions to this rule of hidden motives are the crazy people who appear with increasing frequency, screeching warnings to her to go back home, telling fantastic tales of bodies dismembered and dumped in the forest, or thrown into acid pits. Her mask of impassivity remains unshaken by these encounters. Some of these stories are taken up and repeated in more measured tones by others, who don’t seem quite so crazy.

The harder she insists on her rights, the more intransigent and hostile the officials become. The security guards open up her box and poke holes in the packages, destroying the contents in a demonstration of their power and her powerlessness. Still she disdains to show any emotion.

“Don’t fall asleep!” a crazy woman whispers to her urgently as she sits, exhausted, in a railway station waiting room, surrounded by sleeping people. “The ones who fall asleep disappear!” By this time, we have a clear sense that there are not one but two ‘industries’ in this town – the prison and the prostitution that feeds off it, recruiting the humiliated and desperate wives and girlfriends of the prisoners, who arrive in the town under similar circumstances to hers.

She does fall asleep, and at that point the movie enters into an extended dream sequence, in which all the crazies, pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, and prison officials give speeches at a banquet. What is the meaning of this turn in the story? Does this nightmare signify the exhaustion of her spirit? Her final surrender before the pressures being brought against her? It is not altogether clear. Nor, it must be said, is it entirely convincing when a story that up to this point has been so uncompromisingly realist switches abruptly into this fantasy of comic absurdity. It leaves the fate of the woman rather unsatisfyingly unresolved.

A Gentle Creature is, nonetheless, a very affecting movie.

Sergei Loznitsa
Photo: Getty images

It is interesting to speculate on the reasons why the movies coming out of Russia (or to be more precise, the former Soviet Union – Loznitsa is Belarusian, and his movie was made entirely outside of Russia) probe deeper into the nature of life in contemporary capitalist society than any others. I believe it cannot be just coincidence.

The producer of Loveless, Alexander Rodnyansky, has said that although the film was about “Russian life, Russian society and Russian anguish … it’s not specifically Russian, I believe it is very universal.” This is absolutely true. Yet the “Russian anguish” runs deep.

The final act in the restoration of capitalist social relations in Russia took place in the 1990s, when the Soviet Union fractured along national lines and the ruling bureaucracy, which had up to that point presided over a nationalised economy and property relations established by the 1917 revolution, privatised the remaining central industries and economic institutions, took possession of them in their own name and transformed themselves into a capitalist class.

Capitalist restoration finally took place with neither heroics nor great expectations, not through violent counter-revolution, but through a protracted and mostly silent process of decay. Socialised property relations – defended at the cost of twenty million dead against the onslaught of German imperialism in 1941 –  had rotted away to the point of collapse. A few of the nations oppressed by ‘Soviet’ Russian chauvinism gained a measure of national self-determination with that collapse, but little else.

The capitalist economy that rose from the ruins has made a tiny handful rich beyond imagining, but little has improved for the great mass. Behind the toxic politics of nationalism, there lies precious little really national economic life. Russia lives by selling its vast natural resources to Western Europe, with the various layers of the bourgeoisie clipping the ticket along the way. Russian cities are ringed by industrial graveyards of closed-down industries, relics of earlier times.

And the worst aspects of the old state have simply continued on virtually unchanged. With new colours sewn onto their lapels, the police, the brutalising army, the spying apparatus, and the vast and terrifying prison system continue on much as they did in Stalinist times. The Bonapartist thug who crowns the whole machine was himself a trained KGB operative.

Here is capitalism, in its phase of senile decline, walking naked in Russia.

A theme common to all of these movies is the war of all against all, the atomisation of human beings, and the ways in which this violates our social nature, the very thing that makes us human. The heroine of A Gentle Creature lives in a constant state of having to trust others, while knowing that she can’t trust a single one of them; listening to the conversations of others while being unable to take part in the conversations; striving to act as a human being in social conditions where a humanity in common doesn’t exist. The detestable couple in Loveless have followed the path of individual self-seeking for so long, they have become incapable even of caring for their own son. And at every turn stand the unfeeling representatives of a brutal and oppressive state, crushing every attempt of human beings to connect with each other in solidarity, as human beings.

Andrey Zvyagintsev Photo: Anna Matveeva

The most complete atomisation of the working class was the end result of the Stalinist counter-revolution of the 1930s, which murdered an entire generation of revolutionary workers who had made the 1917 revolution and shattered and dispersed the organisations of the working class, and of the decades of relentless police-state repression since then. It is the key condition that permitted the bureaucratic class to carve up and pocket for themselves the national patrimony of Russia. It is the secret of the extraordinary purity of the capitalist social relations that are laid bare in these movies, relations unadulterated either by feudal paternalism or by proletarian resistance. When workers in other parts of the world look at Russia they see their immediate future.

Regardless of whatever cynical conclusions Zvyagintsev may have drawn on this question, the striving of the Russian working class to assert its humanity and build solidarity has not been snuffed out. Working people will find a way to connect with each other and build a mass movement to overthrow this oppressive state and the super-rich bloodsuckers who stand behind it. At what pace this happens it is impossible to say, but it will happen, in Russia and the rest of the world. At this early stage, great movies such as these, the dilemmas they present and the discussions they stimulate, can become a very important part of that process.

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