At the Movies

Michael Wood

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan begins and ends as a harsh parable of the isolated individual’s losing battle against a corrupt, tentacular system. The director himself, in a press release, invites us to look to Hobbes for the meaning of the title. We have swapped our freedom for the security provided by a sovereign state – in this case an illusory exchange. But when Leviathan literally surfaces within the film the creature comes not from Hobbes but from the Book of Job, and represents not the state but an unctuous priest’s riddling answer to the questions of a man whose wife (he thinks) has committed suicide. ‘Canst thou draw out leviathan with a hook?’ the priest asks, ‘or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?’ The words he doesn’t cite, at least in the subtitles, are even more appropriate: ‘Will he make many supplications unto thee? Will he speak soft words unto thee?’ The priest is saying shit happens, and he knows whereof he speaks, since he is the spiritual counsellor of the town’s scheming drunken mayor, the man who discreetly convinces this ogre to stick to his coercive ways, since they are what he does best. The word that most helps the mayor to shake off his brief fit of fear is ‘might’. Near the close of the film the priest makes an eloquent speech about God and pravda, giving a new sense to the phrase ‘speaking truth to power’. Now it means explaining to the mighty how they can not only get away with murder but serve the Lord while they are at it.

I described the mayor as drunken but the adjective hardly tells us anything. Sober people are hard to find in this movie, and what seems to have begun as a kind of satire on a Russian cliché – when in doubt turn to vodka rather than pravda – becomes part of a secret theme, an almost infinite complication of the parable. The man I have already mentioned, himself quite drunk, when asked by a shopkeeper what he would like to buy, says: ‘Two bottles of vodka, what else would I want?’ An erring wife, the supposed suicide at an earlier moment, can’t speak to her husband until she has downed a full tumbler of vodka. Another wife, just as drunk as her husband but not so stupid, asks him if he is fit to drive. He says of course he is, he is a traffic cop. Everyone’s idea of fun is to have a day out in a rocky landscape, get plastered and indulge in a little shooting practice. This scene, incidentally, produces one of the film’s finest jokes. The host of the party, instead of shooting at one of the bottles lined up as targets, rakes away the whole lot with his Kalashnikov. The others are indignant, what will they shoot at now? The host smiles slyly, and produces a set of framed photographs of former heads of state. They go as far towards the present as Gorbachev. The host says he has a picture of Yeltsin too, but he is not ready to put him up as a target. And as for current officials, he says, we lack the proper historical distance. Critics have pointed out that the mayor’s office has a photograph of Putin on the wall, as if this were the director’s joke. I take it as a documentary fact of officialdom – many countries have portraits of their leader in every government location. It’s still a joke, but scarier and of much wider range. It’s not an act of rebellion or even disrespect to shoot at photographs of the past. It’s just a reminder that the only Leviathan who counts is the one in power now. I’m sure Putin would not disagree, and perhaps that is why this film qualified for government support. Well, that and its air of dissent that may confuse the West. Leviathan is Russia’s official selection for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars.

The drinking is symptomatic of a deeper, bewildered hopelessness. Other symptoms are scarcely controllable rage, and reckless misbehaviour that can only lead to trouble. For a while I kept wondering whether this was just a weakness in the film’s script, written by Zvyagintsev with Oleg Negin. The plot moves faster if everyone just does the wrong thing as soon as possible. The man whose house and business are to be taken away from him by the mayor is too angry to do anything sensible about his case; his wife sleeps with his lawyer for no reason; goes off with the lawyer during the picnic, as if to advertise her freedom and insult her husband, although she has shown no inclination to make such gestures before. Even the mayor, witless with booze, risks getting killed because he likes the idea of an idiotic late-night confrontation with the man whose land he wants. I also wondered whether we were looking at a picture of, an implied comment on, another Russian cliché: give me a chance of any sort of self-destructive action and I’ll take it. Or more subtly: how can I blame the state when I have so much to blame myself for? The wife says to the lawyer, as they both see the mess they are in: ‘It’s all my fault.’ He doesn’t agree. He says: ‘Everything is everyone’s fault.’

This is potentially a liberating thought, and for a while it looks as if the lawyer may be able to do something with it. He has a dossier of the mayor’s horrendous hidden misdeeds, and he has, or claims he has, connections to people who move in serious circles of power. This is enough to frighten the mayor, and leads him to seek solace with the priest, as well as indulge in a lot of bullying of his stereotyped acolytes. But then the mayor finds his nerve again, makes an appointment with the lawyer, takes him out to a lonely spot and has him beaten up. He then points a gun at him, to show what he could do, and fires elsewhere, into the sand. He leaves the lawyer to find his own way back into the world. When we next see him he is on the train to Moscow. ‘Everything is everyone’s fault’ now means you do what you can but after that you get on with your life, and stop expecting to get any soft words out of Leviathan: he’s tougher than you are.

The film, shot by Mikhail Krichman, is extraordinarily beautiful to look at, and here as almost always in dark stories great cinematography creates a rather baffling irony. What are we to do with these bays and beaches and rocks, the swirling sea, the stark mountains, the delicate changes of light? To say nothing of the capsized carcasses of old fishing boats, all their ribs showing, or the vast, bleached skeleton of a whale half-buried in the sand. Is this another Leviathan? The real Leviathan, dead and wasted, a sort of memorial? A young boy goes out to sit with the skeleton when he is upset. The place is the coast of the Barents Sea, not far from Murmansk, but every scene except the last is set in summer, so the cold is not the point. Nor is there any real sense of closeness to nature. It’s more a case of little government being as bad as big government; even here, on the edge of a beautiful world, you can’t trust the cops, the judges, the church, and you can’t get away from them. But there’s still a mystery. The film opens and closes with the land and seascape (and Philip Glass’s music), it is what is there, it is what remains, and its light and lack of clutter are important. Perhaps this is not ‘nature’ but whatever it is we betray when we make our lives so irremediably cloudy with crime.

There is no doubt about the violence that has taken over these lives, both inwardly and outwardly, and there is an amazing figuration of it in the film, a last Leviathan, so to speak, which comes not from Hobbes or the Old Testament or the Barents Sea but from the pitiless world of change. We are inside the house the man has been trying to keep; we have spent much of the movie here, we almost live here. There is a terrific noise, and an excavator on a long crane crashes through the window and takes most of the far wall away. It ducks its head, refocuses, and comes back to sweep off the rest of the wall. A little later, it does the same thing to another room. We are still watching from inside, this is happening to us. Only later do we get a shot of the demolition work from outside. It is impossible not to personify the excavator, to see it as some kind of dragon, but what are we doing when we give in to this view? We aren’t finding the film’s message, if it has one, but we are following a line laid down by its imagery. State, church, greed, bullying, booze, anger, human weakness and folly all collude in feeding the monster. ‘Remember the battle, do no more,’ is what Job is told. But in this film there really is no battle. Just a sinister, sometimes comic conspiracy of disorderly intentions, and an unforgettable portrait of wreckage.