By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

Cannes Competition Review: Leviathan

Leviathan a“Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fishhook? Or his tongue with a cord which thou lettest down?”
—Job 41:1

Returning to the Palme d’Or race after a brief segue in Un Certain Regard (where 2011’s Elena won the Jury Prize), Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is one of the finest, if not the finest film, in the 2014 Competition; other films may match it in terms of meaning, but the level of craftsmanship and the delicate form on display here is unrivaled. Described by its producer Alexander Rodnyansky as a “story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people,” Leviathan is one of the final titles here at Cannes 2014, and its utter immensity is proof that this Festival does indeed sometimes save the best for last.

leviathan1

The narrative—rapt in poignant beauty and steeped in true irony—is witnessed in the Euro-Arctic town of Kirovsk, a hilly, chilly locale exquisitely photographed by Mikhail Krichman, Zvyagintsev’s usual cinematographer. Penned by Zvyagintsev and regular writing partner Oleg Negin, the film was initially described as a contemporary retelling of the Book of Job (which certainly raised intrigue), but it’s simpler to dissect it as a story of one man’s Ahab-like struggle with broken family and municipal corruption. Set against the merciless Barents Sea, Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) faces the loss of his house and business due to the shady practices of Vadim Sergeyich, the vodka-swilling, red-faced Gargantuan mayor who resorts to threats and violence to remain in power (with flashes of a certain crack-using Toronto politician). Trying his best to stay afloat, Kolya employs the help of Moscow lawyer Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) to navigate the legal situation, and it’s the trust he places in him that begins the collapse of everything, his family included, that Kolya knew (though outlooks are similarly bleak for most in this representation of Kirovsk).

As Leviathan is Zvyagintsev’s biggest production to date, the film weighs in with a populated cast that is uncharacteristic of the director’s previous work. While it is a trick at the top of the film to get a handle on all the names and family members amidst the exchanges, each character eventually receives the treatment that hints at a number of engrossing tales written into this diegesis; Zvyagintsev presents a universe that is established with sublime restraint, and the storytelling of the supporting players strikes a balance that adds to the emotional impact of Kolya’s situation, rather than distract from or muddle it.

Leviathan BSpeaking of Kolya: many reports out of this Festival have extolled Timothy Spall’s acting in Mr. Turner (myself included), but Aleksey Serebryakov owns, by far, the most compelling male role in this entire Competition. There’s never a scene where Kolya doesn’t have a myriad of issues weighing on his mind, and these are visible in Serebryakov’s pained, tired facial expressions and believable portrayal of alcoholism (to be sure, Leviathan is boozier than two or three Hong Sang-soo films combined). While the entire cast is assuredly great, we see a major range in Serebryakov’s exploration of Kolya, and it’s a deeply affecting performance.

Finally, Zvyagintsev’s construction (and eventual deconstruction) of visual space is really quite astonishing. Both indoors and out Krichman employs dolly tracks that often follow a curved trajectory, allowing the camera to turn corners in domestic scenes or capture a wider shot of the imposing landscapes. At all times the film looks gorgeous, often haunting; whether it is the poetic image of a half-buried whale skeleton or the frigid hillsides of northwest Russia, there are scenes in this film that are simply incredible. One unforgettable example: tracking back-to-front the length of a courtroom during one of Kolya’s hearings, in a single take the camera slowly approaches a woman speed-reading legalese as fast as she can, done so to make a point about the confusing, whirlwind bureaucracy that laymen like Kolya have no chance in besting. It’s this kind of artistry that makes Leviathan such a giant: modest, accessible, yet deeply complex and expertly accomplished.

 

One Response to “Cannes Competition Review: Leviathan”

Leave a Reply

Quote Unquotesee all »

“I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many recappers, while clearly over their heads, are baseline sympathetic to finding themselves routinely unmoored, even if that means repeating over and over that this is closer to “avant-garde art” than  normal TV to meet the word count. My feed was busy connecting the dots to Peter Tscherkassky (gas station), Tony Conrad (the giant staring at feedback of what we’ve just seen), Pat O’Neill (bombs away) et al., and this is all apposite — visual and conceptual thinking along possibly inadvertent parallel lines. If recappers can’t find those exact reference points to latch onto, that speaks less to willful ignorance than to how unfortunately severed experimental film is from nearly all mainstream discussions of film because it’s generally hard to see outside of privileged contexts (fests, academia, the secret knowledge of a self-preserving circle working with a very finite set of resources and publicity access to the larger world); resources/capital/access/etc. So I won’t assign demerits for willful incuriosity, even if some recappers are reduced, in some unpleasantly condescending/bluffing cases, to dismissing this as a “student film” — because presumably experimentation is something the seasoned artist gets out of their system in maturity, following the George Lucas Model of graduating from Bruce Conner visuals to Lawrence Kasdan’s screenwriting.”
~ Vadim Rizov Goes For It, A Bit

“On the first ‘Twin Peaks,’ doing TV was like going from a mansion to a hut. But the arthouses are gone now, so cable television is a godsend — they’re the new art houses. You’ve got tons of freedom to do the work you want to do on TV, but there is a restriction in terms of picture and sound. The range of television is restricted. It’s hard for the power and the glory to come through. In other words, you can have things in a theater much louder and also much quieter. With TV, the quieter things have to be louder and the louder things have to be quieter, so you have less dynamics. The picture quality — it’s fine if you have a giant television with a good speaker system, but a lot of people will watch this on their laptops or whatever, so the picture and the sound are going to suffer big time. Optimally, people should be watching TV in a dark room with no disturbances and with as big and good a picture as possible and with as great sound as possible.”
~ David Lynch