Cannes Check: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s ‘Leviathan’

Welcome to the final entry in Cannes Check, In Contention's annual preview of the films in Competition at this year's Cannes Film Festival, which kicks off tomorrow. Taking on different selections every day, we've examined what they're about, who's involved and what their chances are of snagging an award from Jane Campion's jury. We close thing out, neatly enough, with what will also be the last Competition film to be unveiled on the Croisette: Andrei Zvyagintsev's “Leviathan.” 

The director: Andrei Zvyagintsev (Russian, 50 years old). Among the most highly regarded Russian filmmakers of his generation, Zvyagintsev's filmography is short but muscular, and routinely compared to work of his late compatriot (and admitted inspiration) Andrei Tarkovsky. Born to working-class parents in Siberia, he began his career as an actor, graduating from drama school in his home town of Novosibirsk before moving to Moscow to further train at the Russian Academy of Theater Arts. He worked as a jobbing actor on stage and television through the 1990s, earning his directing spurs on stray TV episodes.

His 2003 debut feature “The Return” was a bit of a bolt from the blue: the allegorical father-son drama stunned critics at the Venice Film Festival, where it duly picked up the Golden Lion. His 2007 follow-up “The Banishment” was heavier-footed and less well received, but still netted him his first Cannes Competition spot; 2011's smaller-scaled “Elena” was widely agreed to be a return to form. He has also directed a couple of shorts, one of which was made for the 2009 portmanteau film “New York, I Love You” (but cut from the initial release); “Leviathan” is his fourth feature.

The talent: Zvyagintsev didn't write his first two features, but penned “Elena” with “The Banishment” writer Oleg Negin; that collaboration continues here. Producer Alexander Rodnyansky also returns from “Elena,” though his diverse CV ranges from Aleksandr Sokurov's “The Sun” to “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For.” Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has shot all Zvyagintsev's features to date, and was honored at Venice for his striking lensing of Aleksey Fedorchenko's “Silent Souls.” Amid the ensemble, the most familiar face to Zvyagintsev's fans will be Elena Lyadova, who had a scorching supporting role in “Elena.” Co-stars Aleksei Serebryakov and Vladimir Vdovichenkov are sizeable stars in Russia. (Fun fact: the former won Best Fight at the 2008 Russian MTV Movie Awards, which I had no idea existed.)

The pitch: Zvyagintsev's three previous films have been narratively spare, however formally ambitious, so the apparent conceptual sprawl of “Leviathan” may represent something of a departure for him. A contemporary reworking of the Book of Job, the 140-minute film is described in some reports as an ensemble piece featuring multiple principals, though the official synopsis details only one narrative — making it sound more in line with the director's past work. It concerns a battle of wills between a small-time car repairman in coastal North Russia and the corrupt mayor trying to drive him off his land. Producer Rodnyansky describes it as “[dealing] with some of the most important social issues of contemporary Russia… a story of love and tragedy experienced by ordinary people.”

The prestige: Zvyagintsev has had an odd up-and-down record with Cannes, who latched onto him after Venice essentially put him on the map. (Cannes may be the viewed as the most prestigious of festivals, but it's often a follower rather than a leader when it comes to minting new auteurs.) Placing “The Banishment” in Competition suggested they thought he was ready for his close-up, though the muted critical response obviously shook their confidence in him — despite the fact that the film won Best Actor from the jury. When “Elena” came round four years later, it was demoted to Un Certain Regard, to the vocal exasperation of the critical majority, who deemed the film superior not only to “The Banishment,” but much of that year's Competition. (It won the Special Jury Prize.) Placing him back in Competition with “Leviathan” seems like a mea culpa move on the selectors' part, acknowledging Zvyagintsev's place on the auteur A-list.

The buzz: Bare bones of the synopsis aside, the film is still a bit of a mystery package in terms of tone and form, amplifying excitement among the faithful — though the severity of the premise doesn't portend a crossover success. Still, “Elena” was a slow-burning critical favorite that built a strong reputation from initially modest hype, so Zvyagintsev has renewed momentum in his favor.

The odds: It comes down to this: if Zvyagintsev pulls out something of equivalent thematic and formal heft to “The Return,” he'll be a formidable Palme d'Or contender. Russia is, of course, a powder-keg of controversy these days, so a film that takes on its political deficiencies is likely to find a sympathetic response from the jury. For that reason, I'm inclined to agree with Jigsaw Lounge's odds of 9-2, making it the second favorite for the Palme; Paddy Power, at 12-1, is less convinced. Any manner of runner-up prize is equally conceivable.

The date: “Leviathan” closes out the Competition on Friday, May 23. 

And we're done! Tomorrow the festival kicks off with “Grace of Monaco” and “Timbuktu” — catch up with all the other entries in our Cannes Check series here.