After his Oscar-nominated film "Leviathan" was deemed "anti-Russian" by Russia's Minister of Culture, director Andrey Zvyagintsev returned to the Cannes Film Festival with an equally bleak critique of Russian society.
Zvyagintsev was to premiere his fourth film, "Loveless," on Thursday in Cannes, where "Leviathan" won best screenplay three years ago. That film, which also won a Golden Globe, was made with Russian state funding and prompted Russia's culture minister, Vladimir Medinsky, to refuse any further state financing for what he called Zvyagintsev's mix of "hopelessness and existential meaninglessness."
"Loveless" was instead made as an international co-production. The film is ostensibly about a bitterly divorcing couple (Mariana Spivak and Alexey Rozin), whose young son (Matvey Novikov) goes missing. But "Loveless" is also filled with state news reports and other sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant references that - as in "Leviathan" - suggest Russia's politics has bankrupted its society.
"The Ministry of Culture went to great pains to emphasize how much they disliked 'Leviathan' and their desire to avoid the repetition of this kind of mistake in the future," said producer Alexander Rodnyansky. "After the uproar that 'Leviathan' caused in Russia, I made a conscious decision to do this without any state involvement. I decided we didn't need to embarrass them again and to do the film on our own."
Grim and controlled, "Loveless" is initially focused on the relationships of its central characters. But Zvyagintsev steadily builds political subtext into the tale that, by the end, moves to the film's center. State propaganda on Ukraine is heard on the radio and on TV. In one pivotal scene, the mother wears a jogging suit emblazed with "Russia" and the national colors.
Though it didn't immediately earn the same widespread praise as "Leviathan," London's Daily Telegraph praised "Loveless" as "an opaque but pitiless critique on the director's native Russia."
Variety wrote: "Zvyagintsev can't come right out and declare, in bright sharp colors, the full corruption of his society, but he can make a movie like 'Leviathan,' which took the spiritual temperature of a middle-class Russia lost in booze and betrayal, and he can make one like 'Loveless,' which takes an ominous, reverberating look not at the politics of Russia but at the crisis of empathy at the culture's core."
In one unusual exchange Wednesday, a reporter accused Zvyagintsev of proffering his own propaganda.
"Certainly not," said Zvyagintsev. "If you saw 'Leviathan' then you know where I stand vis-a-vis the powers that be. It's not supposed to be propaganda at all in this episode. You do see these scenes on TV. It's Russian life, Russian society, Russian anguish at the end of the day. But it's also universal, not just Russian."
"Loveless" will be released in Russia by a unit of Sony Pictures and the Walt Disney Co. on June 1. "Leviathan" made $1.5 million at the Russian box office in 2015. Millions, however, watched a copy that leaked online.
On Wednesday, Sony Pictures Classics acquired the film for U.S. distribution.