January 1, 2015 § 2 Comments
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan opens with wide-screen shots of a landscape whose jagged, hostile beauty makes it look like the edge of the Earth, and it is. This is the coast of the Barents Sea, which is part of the Arctic Ocean (because of warming currents from the Atlantic, it apparently never freezes over). Next, we are inside a kitchen high above the sea, a cheerful room, light pouring in from all sides, where a youngish woman is preparing breakfast. For a minute or so this remains a sunny piece of scene-setting, improbably reminiscent of the idyllic California beach house familiar from so many Hollywood movies. Then discord enters, first in the shape of a boy who turns out to be the woman’s stepson, his every gesture and remark fuelled by resentment and refusal of her attempts at mothering. From outside, this house, precious in so many ways to those who live in it, is seen to be fragile, perched sublimely between ominous rocks and lashing waves.
At some point I was reminded – by the film’s slowness, by the camera’s lingering detachment, by the silences – of an earlier Russian film, Elena, before it dawned that it had the same director. Elena too begins with transition from outside to domestic interior, in this case a Moscow flat, and with a woman getting up and making breakfast, in a kitchen that for all its space and high-tech appliances is claustrophobic, not happily lived in for sure. The ambiguity of the woman’s role sets the film’s tone: her labours in that kitchen suggest she is not entirely at home, and as she delivers the breakfast to an older man in a different bedroom from her own, we can readily, but wrongly, assume that she’s a carer rather than a wife. Elena is a domestic drama riddled with unease (maintained with the kind of exquisite attention you find in Chabrol), its conflicts connected to a larger backdrop of brutal inequality. Leviathan has more epic proportions, but for both it’s in the kitchen that signs of trouble first appear.
The house on the Arctic shore was built (or perhaps completed from family foundations) by Kolya, a mechanic cum handyman who lives and works there with his second wife, Lilya, and his son Roma. He faces a court hearing of his appeal against compulsory purchase by the local mayor of the land on which his house stands, with only derisory compensation. Kolya’s hopes of winning are placed in the hands of Dmitri, a friend from his young days in the Army, now a successful Moscow lawyer, who arrives by train that day. When court proceedings prove routinely and mechanically unjust Dmitri promises to undo their ruling by tackling the mayor with a file he has assembled about this small-time gangster’s past crimes. His plan goes badly awry.
From the moment late that night when the mayor has himself driven to the beach house to confront Kolya with his triumph and demand an immediate eviction, the immensity of what the poorer man is up against becomes clear; the mayor’s actions seem impelled not only by greed, but by malice, not from any personal grudge, but the visceral anger of those whose tyranny is challenged. Both men are drunk, and the self-destructive speed with which great quantities of vodka are consumed throughout this film doesn’t cease to amaze. This is Putin’s Russia, and an older Russia too, of Czar after Czar, including those more recent whose photographs are used as target practice by Kolya and friends on a drunken family picnic.
Neither Kolya nor Dmitri anticipate the treatment that awaits them. ‘Who can open the doors of his face?/his teeth are terrible round about’. In the film other verses on the Leviathan are quoted, by a priest thrusting Job’s sufferings upon Kolya as justification for his own, but for Kolya there is no mercy; his losses multiply cruelly, and without end, inflicted by a malign state in alliance with the church. This Leviathan is both biblical and Hobbesian, as well as a literal sea monster: the whales that swim close to the Barents’ coast, sometimes too close, leaving their vast carcasses to decay in Tarkovskian grandeur alongside keeled over derelict fishing boats. Cod is still fished here and the film’s two female characters, Lilya and her best friend, work in the fish-processing factory: women’s work. Both in this film and in Elena, Zvyagintsev’s take on women is interesting: they seem to think more than their men, although mental stamina or acuity is no guarantee of protection here.
Zvyagintsev makes films about families in a society, a polity, where it’s hard for the family, whatever form it takes, to thrive. Though the house, or home (not necessarily synonymous) as illusory place of safety may be an all too obvious metaphor, he doesn’t blur the dynamic of individual and family relationships, however great the threat from the corrupt and ruthless powers that be. These are individuals who live and breathe, betray and wound, the realism of the performances deepened and intensified by so much that isn’t said. Leviathan makes you want to weep with despair at its tragedies, which have their own human roots, as well as the crushing force from above.
Leviathan was the last film I saw at the cinema in 2014, and one of the year’s best.