“King over all that is proud”: Nature vs the Humans in the Films of Andrey Zvyagintsev (PART THREE)

Leviathan 1

This is PART THREE of a three-part feature. See the full Introduction, PART ONE, and PART TWO.

*WARNING*: Because this essay concerns itself with how specific recurring themes/images relate to the development of a film’s narrative arc, it necessarily contains plot spoilers.

Leviathan

In many of his films, Andrey Zvyagintsev situates human beings as sometimes fragile, sometimes powerful forces in nature. Leviathan is only the latest film to explore this motif. Both The Return and Elena examine the struggle of an individual against an oppressive larger system, though the human-made structures turn out to be no match for “irreversible” Nature.

At one point in Leviathan, a character muses that the human “is the most dangerous animal” of all. But unlike Elena, and more similar to The Return, Leviathan reminds us of Nature’s leveling effect. As the film opens, the camera gives us a glimpse of Russia’s grandeur with shots of the Baltic’s rocky coastline, and then muddy rotted hulls of ships. Then we see a single house, bearing up against the elements—but for how long? The home is that of Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov), a mechanic, and Lilya (Elena Lyadova), who works in a fish plant. Their nemesis is Vadim (Roman Madyanov), the greedy and corrupt mayor who wishes to purchase the land.

Vadim’s repugnant nature is demonstrated early on when he tells Kolya, “You’re all insects,” and, “You’ve never had any fucking rights and you never will!” We might even think that Vadim is the intended “leviathan” in the film—the unchecked force in nature that swallows up the lower species (or merely swats them away), and bulldozes over their lives for his own ambitions. Indeed, scenes of rotting shacks suggest that Kolya is the only holdout in this village that has slowly deteriorated as the result of Vadim’s avarice.

But for all of Vadim’s drunken, blustery abuse, we come to realize that he is not the biggest “fish” of them all—and perhaps neither is Vladimir Putin, the obliquely referenced authoritarian force that drives the political corruption (there’s a framed photograph of Putin on Vadim’s office wall). The reference to an all-powerful “Leviathan” is hinted at in the middle of the film, when Stephanych is working at a crossword puzzle: “Darwin’s word for directional and irreversible historical development of life.” “E-vo-lu-tion,” he finally decides. “It fits.” And, by the film’s conclusion, we have to agree. All forces—for good or evil, with compassion or greedy malice—will crumble under the pressure of evolutionary change, and the rest of the film develops this theme through images of decrepitude, erosion, decay, and death.

Kolya’s family structure—both the physical house itself and the organic flesh-and-blood “home”—is the first and most obvious entity destroyed by the forces of corruption. However, long before this occurs, there are scenes in which Kolya’s son Vitya and his friends carouse in the ruins of an old building on the nearby beach. Then there’s perhaps the most memorable moment (shown in the image above), when Vitya stumbles across the skeleton of a whale. Though we might be quick to point to Vadim as the source for the family’s erosion, both Lilya and Kolya contribute to it—the former through her affair with Dmitriy (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), the latter through his alcoholism and cold demeanour towards Lilya.

In the story’s closing act, Kolya is told by the village priest that, when it comes to the “Leviathan,” “Nothing on earth is its equal. It is king over all that are proud.” (See Andrew O’Hehir’s Salon review, which discusses the Job references in the film.) While the devout man might view this an example of God’s might, it seems that Zvyagintsev is urging us to look beyond the political and spiritual Leviathans to consider the ultimate one, which even God can’t fully account for: Nature.

Vadim might assume he has swallowed up his weaker opponents when he attends a pious sermon in a gaudily decorated church he himself has financed—a church that has been built on the grounds of Kolya’s old home, previously torn down. But the repeated images of coastline and decrepit boats, and the addition of the whale skeleton, reinforces that even the “leviathan” of the natural world cannot withstand the powerful forces of nature: both humans and oceans, political corruption and erosion. 

Through the Russian director’s expert camera work, which pulls our view from the newly constructed church out to the ocean deep, even the works of humans have passed away, leaving only the natural forces unaffected by human history. Perhaps the village priest is right, at least in the sense that, in the form of Nature, the Leviathan (with a capital “L”) “is king over all that are proud.” And “Leviathan,” like “Evolution,” is also nine words (across or down, it doesn’t matter).

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