By Rhiana Davies-Cotter and James Mottram

Loveless won the Jury Prize at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival and was also nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 90th Academy Awards. The film, which was directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev [Leviathan, The Return, Elena], centres around Zhenya [Spivak] and Boris [Rozin], two parents going through a bitter divorce. Zhenya and Boris each have new partners and are eager to start their lives afresh, even if this means completely neglecting their 12-year-old son, Alyosha, who is constantly caught in the middle of their animosity. When Alyosha can no longer stand his parents’ incessant fighting, he runs away. Although the police see Alyosha’s disappearance as a simple case of a runaway child, things turn out to be more complicated than they first appear.

Zhenya and Boris are two of the ugliest and most ‘loveless’ characters that you will see in the cinema this year. But the English title doesn’t quite do them justice. “Loveless is a loose translation of the Russian word Нелюбовь,” Aleksey explains.

“The word doesn’t just mean the absence of love, it’s the act of not loving. So, it’s both passive and active. It’s not hate, but there’s a very thin line – a small difference that is hard to explain. These characters have absolutely no time for love”.

Zhenya, in particular, is being touted as a monster due to her lack of motherly care – but Maryana doesn’t view her quite so harshly. “I don’t see a monster. I see a woman who wants love and wants to start her life fresh, but she has a child, and that makes it really hard for her to do that. I think she’s suffering – she’s a woman stuck in a bad situation. She’s unhappy and it all ends in tragedy. Making this film was very emotional – particularly the ending. When I watched the film for the first time, I cried as hard as hard at the end as my character does in the film.”

Maryana didn’t find making the film unpleasant though. “The harder the role”, she says, “the more interesting the work is for the actor.”

Although it was Maryana’s first time working with Zvyagintsev, Loveless is Aleksey’s third film [following Elena and Leviathan] with the acclaimed writer and director. “Every film we work on together is different,” Aleksey muses. “Andrey wrote this film with Oleg Negin. Both writers brought a really unique perspective and left their own unique signature on the script. All of Andrey’s films deal with really specific themes, so every project that I work on with him is very different.”

Although Zvyagintsev is renowned for films that overtly dissect Russian society (they often feature scheming or corrupt politicians and oppressed victims), Loveless is a more universal story of family, obligation and love (or lack thereof). “I don’t think this film is necessarily about Russia,” Aleksey says. “It’s just about humans. Lower class, middle class, upper class… it’s about people and the universal search for happiness and love.”

Not overlty political, the film still paints a very bleak picture of life in modern Russia, and Zvyagintsev has compared Zhenya’s character – particularly her self-interest and the fact that she suffers through tragedy yet learns nothing from it – to Russia under Vladimir Putin.

So, how does Russia – a country with a government that is very sensitive to criticism – feel about Zvyagintsev’s films? “Among artistic people, Andrey Zvyagintsev is a very popular director,” says Aleksey. “I think people really enjoy his approach to the reality of the times. He works on such heavy and important themes and criticism of the government, and the fact that people react to his films in such different ways means that they are important.”

The government itself is also surprisingly supportive of Zvyagintsev’s work… Albeit somewhat begrudgingly. Russia submitted both Leviathan and Loveless for the Academy Awards (as nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film in their respective years). This is despite the fact that Leviathan was considered anti-Putin, had to wait eight months for its Russian release (while the government mulled over whether or not to give it a distribution license) and inspired a new set of guidelines (expressly targeting films that “defile” Russia) from the Minister of Culture, Vladimir Medinsky.

Perhaps Russia’s (eventually) positive response to Leviathan and particularly Loveless, which has been met with far less government intervention, are signs that Russia is lessening its grip on government criticism and perceived ‘threats to state security and public stability’. According to Aleksey, “There has been progress in recent years towards a more forgiving arts scene… Theatre, cinema and arts in Russia is a young industry that’s still developing, so there are definitely problems. We’ll just have to see how it goes in the future.”

Aleksey also mentions the lack of government funding for independent arts and states that Russia needs to “find more of a balance between public and private money.” This lack of funding doesn’t seem to have set him back in his own creative career though.

After graduating from Moscow Art Theatre School, Aleksey started working in a theatre called ‘The Theatre of Youth’. “I stayed there for four seasons and then left,” Aleksey states. “After that, some of my classmates and I set up a theatre company. We still work together and have shows now and then. We do lots of different types of theatre. Since we’re independent, we can be pretty experimental. Our first show was ‘Cops on Fire’, which was a ‘hip hopera’. We also all work on our own projects – at the moment I’m working on a historical storytelling piece about different generations of Russian government. Not our current government – part one is about the origins of our government, the Romanov Dynasty in about 1612. Then, part two will be about the revolution, so it’s a big jump. … It’s definitely hard to be an actor in Russia, but that’s probably the case everywhere.”

Where there is a problematic government there is likely to be exciting art being created, and it appears Russia is no exception.

Loveless is in cinemas now

Read our Loveless review

Read our interview with Loveless director Andrey Zvyagintsev


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