When I think of the great directors of our time, a few names come to mind: Park Chan-Wook, Lucrecia Martel, Pedro Almodóvar. But one that I realised I really have not covered enough on this blog is Andrey Zvyaginstev, and I’m going to put that right here and now. It’s about bloody time.
I first came across Zvyaginstev’s work when I wandered into a showing of Loveless at my local indie cinema, because the reviews were good and it was a cold, wet day and I didn’t want to just wait four hours for the next bus doing nothing, and I came out of it feeling as though I had been run over by said bus instead. From there, I arrived home and queued up everyone one of his movies that I could get my hands on, and I have been duly obsessed ever since.
Zvyaginstev is a Russian director who saw his major breakthrough with his feature-length 2003 debut The Return, and followed it up with an almost unmatched run of good quality: 2007’s The Banishment, 2011’s Elena, 2014’s Oscar-nominated (and Oscar-robbed) Leviathan, and 2017’s Loveless, along with a few shorts along the way. Sadly, Zvyaginstev has been dealing with some serious health issues since 2021, and I sincerely hope to see him make a full recovery and return to his filmmaking career at some point.
I think what makes Zvyaginstev such a formidable filmmaker for me is his ability to take on almost painfully bleak topics and turn them into compelling movies; because of the stories he chooses to tell, I’ve found a lot of people avoid his work for fear it’s just going to be too damn bleak to sit through (child of uncaring parents goes missing, small-town Russian man ripped apart by circumstance, dead dads galore, to name a few), and I get that, I do. But, as a director, he’s not here to beat you around the head with how horrible everything is, despite the focal points of his films often being so dark.
His ability to balance tones is incredible, finding these moments of levity and wit in amongst the staggering sadness that permeates a lot of his work. Because of this tonal balance, he can delve into far darker places without it feeling gratuitous; Loveless, in particular, following a pair of checked-out parents as they try to put on the front of caring for their lost son, is dark in a way I have ever really seen in a movie before or since, but the framing of it makes it bearable and ever rewarding.
Not to mention the fact that these movies are just a joy to look at. Zvyaginstev has an unreal eye for cinematography, taking these bleak Russian landscapes and turning them into strikingly beautiful tableaus that seem more like paintings than film shots – the titular Leviathan in his Oscar-nominated classic is a giant skeleton laid out on a lonely beach, a looming reminder of mortality in a small town that’s all too aware of it. Visually, his films strike a line between mythology and realism that I could look at all day. The Return, told from the point of view of two young brothers, has this particularly dreamy feel, like a half-remembered childhood memory all twisted up with the trust.
If you haven’t had a chance to check out Zvyaginstev’s work yet, please take this as your sign to start. His work is some of the absolute best cinema of the twenty-first century, impactful, utterly unforgettable, and bold in both direction and execution. You won’t be disappointed. Though you may be a little bit crushed.
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By Lou MacGregor
(header image via IMDB)
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