AN ULBANDUS ROUNDTABLE
moderated by BRADLEY GORSKI
with MARLOW DAVIS, IRINA DENISCHENKO, ERICA DRENNEN, ROBYN JENSEN, BENJAMIN LUSSIER, and BASIL LVOFF
Since it won best screenplay at Cannes last year, Andrei Zvyagintsev’s fourth feature, Leviathan (2014), has become a political and cultural bellwether for anyone who pays attention to Russia and Russian culture. Western critics have held it up as a beautiful indictment of what everyone seems to call ‘Putin’s Russia,’ while audiences in that far-off land couldn’t even find the movie in theatres. Viewers, critics, and journalists within Russia had to sneak online and watch this big-screen epic on the 12-inch privacy of their laptops. Nevertheless the film has sparked widespread debates in both the Western and Russian media about its aesthetics, its politics, and the place of art in Russian society. The following roundtable adds our voices to this ongoing dialogue.
Spoiler Alert: This discussion mentions several plot points throughout the film, assuming that everyone remembers what happened. You might not, so here’s a quick summary: Kolya and Lilya live in a beautiful glass house in the Russian North. The mayor of their town would like to repossess the land on which the house is built. Kolya’s army friend Dmitry, who is now a Moscow lawyer, comes to help fight the mayor’s bid for repossession. He presents the mayor with evidence of corruption, and then sleeps with Lilya. The mayor initially seems scared, but soon regains his composure, intimidates Dmitry back to Moscow, and takes the land and the house. Kolya’s son Roma cries in front of a big whale skeleton. Lilya sees a whale in the ocean and then dies. The house is destroyed. And a fresh clean church is built on the site of Kolya and Lilya’s old home. In the final scene, a priest sermonizes that, “All power comes from God.”
Leviathan has proven Russia’s most successful cultural export in recent memory, judging by the festival circuit, awards season, and international ticket sales. It’s also become one of the year’s biggest cultural touchstones in the Russian media. But I want to start out with a very simple question: Did you like the film?
I, personally, didn’t care much for Leviathan. The film’s political message seemed heavy enough to make the whole project aesthetically unwieldy. My initial reaction was to think it was like using a grenade launcher. To shoot fish. In a barrel. Except that that metaphor is too exciting for this movie.
When the final titles roll, the progression from the opening of the film to its conclusion is clear (Leviathan moves in a circle—eerie courtroom scenes and open landscape shots bookend the film—or, I should say, it completes one turn of a downward-twisting spiral), but I found it hard to determine why certain events were transpiring. Case in point: the affair between Dmitry and Lilya, which struck me as glib and textually unwarranted. We’re never given any reason for its beginning (or had it already been going on? for how long?), nor are we presented with anything but the vaguest motivations after the fact. Dmitry himself is a flat character throughout the movie, and the affair struck me as an empty device to move the plot towards the endgame of grinding Kolya into the dust. And perhaps that’s understandable, but it’s unsatisfying storytelling.
I thought it was, without a doubt, a beautiful film. And it is ambiguous on just about everything except for its primary fatalist message, which encompasses both the political and biblical senses of leviathan.
The most striking moments of Leviathan, to me, were the courtroom scenes. The impenetrable flow of legal jargon embodies the utter inconsequence of what is being said. Of course the decision has already been made, nonetheless it is necessary to perform the decision in excruciating detail, enumerating every law in the codex, repeating the name of the jurisdiction, always using the full “Rossiiskaia Federatsiia” (Russian Federation), almost as an incantation at this point, intended to bring into reality the legal fiction that bears this name. It reminds one of dossiers compiled by tsarist and Soviet secret police that detailed non-existent crimes to use as kompromat (blackmail): the need to document facts, thoroughly and exhaustively, about events that never happened as justification for what was effectively an arbitrary, summary decision. The legal speech is not only alienating but anti-dialogic: the plaintiff or defendant can’t get a word in edgewise, but why should they be able to?
It’s interesting you bring up the courtroom scenes. I was struck by these, too, but in a different way. To me they felt like a piece of performed “Russianness” that seemed directed not at a domestic audience, but at an international (festival?) audience where these details would be immediately recognized as “local color.” Along with the strikingly fast (and long) reading of the court’s decision, the depiction of gender norms in provincial Russia also felt like it was demonstrating the difference between the world of the film and that of the viewer. Even if the film’s intended audience is not abroad, but in the educated enclaves of the Russian capitals, the separation between the audience and the characters still seems unmistakable. It also seems to be framed by the film itself.
In my opinion, directedness at an international audience, as you have suggested, Bradley, is the byproduct of how the film was shot. It is shot in this ultrarealistic way many European films of today are (seemingly impartial, frigid, and non-sensual in the original meaning of the term “aesthetic”; neo-naturalism). Even if drinking so much vodka was intended as grotesque (and I am not sure it was), it came off as serious.
I think you’re right about the vodka, but other instances of Russian “realia” seem precisely grotesque to me. One example that sticks in my mind is the scene when the mayor eats and drinks alone in the shiny and empty restaurant while Russian pop music blares in the background.
But this grotesque feeling isn’t the only thing that creates the separation I’m talking about. When there’s no pop music, Phillip Glass’s score dominates this movie’s soundscape. It’s the very first and last thing in the film. It begins before the opening titles while the screen is still black and it takes us all the way through the closing credits. It lurks in the background of the whole film, and it seems conspicuously non-Russian. (Maybe this is my subjective opinion, but the frequency with which the composer’s name is mentioned in Russian reviews suggests that I’m probably not alone in my judgment.)
Zvyagintsev has also said that he takes his inspiration from the story of a Colorado man whose house was reclaimed by his local government. While I can understand his motivation for not saying the film is based on Russian life—especially when asking the Ministry of Culture for funding—why does he then pack the final cut with references to the very Russian reality he denies in interviews? Is he trying to make a film that is Russian for foreign audiences and foreign for Russian audiences? Is this a universalist project or a national one?
I believe that any “large-scale” work of art is universalist, however national it may be at that. To accuse Zvyagintsev of double standards because he was inspired by an incident that took place in Colorado is no different than berating Gogol for writing Dead Souls under the influence of Homer, as he himself claimed. If we want to determine to what extent Zvyagintsev’s film is Russian, its poetics should be discussed, not the plot. After all, plots are homeless, as Shklovsky said. But the artistic context in which a work appears is not.
I would say that Zvyagintsev’s film is obviously about Russia. It amalgamates the evils of today’s Russian life, hence the indignant reaction to Leviathan in Russia. But to what extent this film is a Russian one in terms of its poetics is a different question. I’m not a specialist in this field, though I do feel a strong influence of European cinema on Zvyagintsev.
To begin with an obvious influence: Tarkovsky. There are scores of visual quotations of Tarkovsky in all his films. In Leviathan, the demolition of the seaside house rhymes with the burning of the seaside house in Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice. That said, I wouldn’t call Zvyagintsev a devout acolyte of Tarkovsky. I can see Bykov’s point that these are only surface resonances of Tarkovsky.
I find any resemblances with Tarkovsky nonessential because the text of Tarkovsky’s films is much more multilayered and ambiguous than in Zvyagintsev; Zvyagintsev’s message is rather straightforward. His images are allegorical, and sometimes they are not far from very good journalism. He gives you a fable and an allegory (Benjamin not implied). Tarkovsky gives you a system of symbols, and you cannot tell where the vehicle stops and the tenor begins. Maybe Zvyagintsev would like to continue the tradition of Tarkovsky, but he does not. If there is someone who does, it is rather Aleksandr Sokurov.
I would venture that Zvyagintsev’s film is multilayered, but in a different way from Tarkovsky’s. If in Tarkovsky’s films there is a density inherent to each frame, in Leviathan the significance of an image accumulates over time. The camera returns insistently to the same (or sometimes similar) images; each return transforms the image. The repeated shot of waves crashing against the rocky coastline takes on a different valence after the death of Lilya.
Aside from Zvyagintsev’s influences, what about the politics of the film?
The aesthetics of Zvyagintsev’s new film is not my turf, but I like to play with perspectives, so let’s have some fun. It is all too obvious how Leviathan can appear as a criticism of Putin’s regime, especially to a Western audience. But, can we read it as pro-Putin ‘propaganda’? Slabo?
First, some concrete observations. In the lineup of ‘presidential’ portraits used as targets at the birthday picnic, those of more recent leaders are notably missing. (Gorbachev is last; the drunk Yeltsin is “too insignificant” to be included.) Prompted by the main character, the birthday cop explains that we do not yet have the “historical perspective” to include current leaders in the gallery of targets. “Let them hang on the wall for a while,” he says.
When we find Putin’s portrait on the mayor’s wall elsewhere in the film, two features stood out for me in particular:
While the first destabilizes the film’s time frame, suggesting it might have taken place ten or more years ago, the second possibly suggests that Putin’s image is being distorted. There Putin hangs, looking down on the mayor’s office as if sanctifying his evil deeds, but the blurred portrait suggests that maybe his image is being misappropriated. Does this connect Putin to the other powerful figure whose image is so shamefully abused and distorted in the film—God’s?
Your comments make me wonder whether the film’s message is potentially more ambiguous than I’ve given it credit for. As much as the film (at least superficially) owes to Tarkovsky, the thought struck me that thematically it has plenty in common with good old 90s chernukha. If Kolya’s fate doesn’t suggest an empty black hole brought about by corruption, I don’t know what does. And actually—do we have any reason to suppose the film takes place contemporaneously? If we wanted to try to read it as pro-Putin, is it possible to look at it as happening, say, a decade prior to where Russia is now?
The film’s title, Leviathan, simultaneously calls to mind Hobbes’s take on state authority and a deeply religious image. What are we to make of the ties between the state, religion, and the individual in the film? Did you read the film as anti-religious, anti-church, anti-state? What does it have to say about the connections between these entities?
I thought the whole ‘Leviathan’ theme came up awfully late in the film. It’s difficult to know what to do with it. In Job, the Leviathan is meant to represent God’s incredible might in comparison to pitiful humanity. His rhetoric in the whirlwind is more or less, “Have you seen whales? Can you control whales? I made those, by the way...” The glory of the Leviathan puts Job in his place. Roma and Lilya have actual encounters with the whale, but does Kolya himself ever see the Leviathan?
The other serious difference between the story of Job and the story of Kolya is that while Job suffers he comes back 10 times stronger with 10 times as much. We don’t get that kind of resolution with Kolya. Is this due to a spiritual failing on his part? Or an absence of spiritual guidance? Or is it meant to pay homage to the meaningless opium offered by Orthodoxy, in league with the state? Let’s not forget that the same kindly priest who tells Kolya the story of Job is featured prominently at the newly rebuilt church...
True, the priest who imparts the story of Job is at the new church, but he stands in the crowd and looks deeply troubled by the spectacle. I’d hesitate to implicate him in the official church’s nefarious machinations with the state. And it’s true that Kolya doesn’t receive the blessings that Job does. Job begets a new family—his daughters are even the most beautiful in the land—and he dies an old man, happy. We might, though, be troubled by how quickly he forgets the loss of his children and his former suffering.
Leviathan does not mete out rewards for suffering. It tests one’s faith even more than the story of Job. But I’d like to suggest that the film opens up the possibility that Kolya might receive recompense beyond the confines of the film. After hearing the Job tale, Kolya voluntarily carries the old priest’s sack, heavy with loaves of bread, to the modest village church. It’s a small act of kindness, but Russian literature trains us to read for these moments. The Dostoevskian undertones here prepare us to read Kolya’s prison sentence as potentially transformative. I think this comes back to our earlier discussion of whether the film allows for ambiguity: I appreciate that it doesn’t strong-arm you into belief by some calculation that restores what you’ve unjustly lost by the power of two.
If you’re in the Russian Orthodox Church I think you might be offended by Leviathan, but I can’t claim to understand how church people think. Nonetheless the film does have a profoundly Christian message. The leviathan—seen in the sea, as a skeleton, and in the parable—is a symbol of human insignificance in the face of the incomprehensibility of existence. Lilya is a less-thoroughly-sketched character, certainly, and I’m not going to broach gender relations, but she seems to be a kind of martyr or Dostoevskian krotkaia (meek one), who is alien to cold rationalism and to Dmitry’s facts and can’t live without the love of a child.
I’m glad you brought up Lilya. I’ve been thinking a lot about her role. Her actions set off much of the plot: her affair and its discovery prompt the violent scene at the picnic and Kolya’s threats to kill her, which later incriminate him. Her death becomes a tool to frame Kolya and dispose of him in prison. But beyond her plot significance, the camera spends a huge amount of time following Lilya as she goes about her solitary routines: preparing food in the kitchen, cleaning up after the men leave, her early rising, dressing, and trek to the bus for her grim work in the fish processing plant. She appears alone far more often than any other character in the film, and when she does appear with other characters, she is intentionally excluded from their relationships.
And yet despite the constant presentation of Lilya as an outsider to this world, she seems far more connected to the setting of the film than do the other characters. We first meet her framed in the panoramic windows of Kolya’s house, and so it is through watching her in the kitchen that we get a sense of the beauty of the setting, and the tragedy of losing the house. This framing of Lilya in the window is echoed a few scenes later, when her friend shows her the grim apartment that they might rent, should they lose the house. As her friend tries to talk up positives of the apartment, Lilya perches silently by the window, its lack of a view a poignant reminder of the view they will lose. Lilya’s two early morning scenes of walking alone down the road, with the sea in the background, and her final scene of staring out at the sea, underscore her connection to this landscape.
When she sees the whale right before her death, we’re expected to connect it to the leviathan, but what does that image mean for her? Like Kolya, Lilya loses her home to the powers that be. But we hardly see her fight to keep it, despite how much it means to her. Perhaps her struggle is not with the powers that be, but with a more private power structure, a structure that relegates her to the back seat while the men talk, that requires her to submit to violent sex from her husband, and that makes her an outsider, no matter how much she may feel connected to this place. Is she like the whale, a mythical creature that both belongs in this place but will end up another giant skeleton, dead on the shore?