We would like to believe that our critical faculties are impartial and that our impressions of the media we consume are a direct result of its inherent quality. We would like to believe that we can sense aesthetic excellence in the same way as we smell burning or taste strawberries but the truth is a good deal more complex. While our culture and neurological make-up certainly train us to expect certain aesthetic benchmarks, much of our reaction comes not from the text but the stuff around it.
At a very basic physiological level, it is quite hard to enjoy a 3D film when you arrive at the cinema with a head-ache only to discover that the cinema’s sound-system is malfunctioning along with its air-conditioning. As we progress past childhood, we learn to make allowances for things likely to affect our moods but it is still incredibly easy to sit through a bad screening of a film and conclude that the film itself is to blame. Conversely, go to see a stupid movie with a bunch of friends who respond to every beat with gales of laughter and you are just as likely to praise the film for that evening’s entertainment as you are your friends.
At a more psychological level, we seldom enter a cinema without baggage. We carry with us a lifetime’s worth of ideas and learned emotional responses that cannot help but influence how we respond to depictions of fictional events. Indeed, the very concept of a Trigger Warning assumes that exposure to images and situations will produce similar emotional responses regardless of whether those situations are real or fictional. We often talk about children becoming ‘desensitised’ to media portrayals of violence and a normal suite of emotional reactions does include the capacity to distinguish between real and fictional contexts but lines are often blurry, slopes are often slippery and the emotions we choose to police are largely a question of cultural norms and individual tastes. For example, while we may learn to endure the unpleasant imagery of horror films in the same way as we learn to endure the sting of spicy food, we are not generally in the habit of distancing ourselves from the emotional payload of comedies or conventional dramas. In fact, some of our most enjoyable artistic experiences happen when an author whose experiences resemble our own manages to connect to the emotional baggage we carry around with us by virtue of being human. Some art is well made, and some just happens to speak directly to us.
It is hardly controversial to suggest that our emotional reaction to a work of art is likely to be coloured by factors external to the text but the same could also be said of more complex critical judgements and the formation of our own interpretations. An excellent (fictional) example of this process can be found in an early episode of The Sopranos when Tony visits his therapist only to accuse her of deliberately planting a picture of a rotting tree. Of course, there is nothing in the painting that would lead us to conclude that the tree is rotten and so we are invited to conclude that it is Tony’s emotional baggage that is encouraging him to ‘see’ a generic painting as somehow inherently bleak. The bleed between our own personal experiences and our interpretation of texts is one of the reasons why I see criticism as a creative rather than a reactive form but the process of interpretation can be ‘gamed’ or deliberately influenced.
The great French director Claude Chabrol began his career as a film critic and so stepped behind the camera with an excellent idea of how critics formed judgements about the films they reviewed. This insight encouraged Chabrol to ‘embellish’ the text of his film by including references to other books and works of art. As Chabrol would later admit, these references were rarely thought-through but Chabrol realised that if he allowed the camera to linger on the cover of a book then some bright critic would invariably take the bait, assume a link between the two texts, and produce a more involved (and flattering) interpretation of his film. This anecdote may paint Chabrol as something of a rogue, but priming audiences for particular interpretations is now absolutely central to the PR process and Hollywood blockbusters will often contain under-developed references to important events (such as 9/11 in the case of J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield, the Occupy movement in the case of Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises and Afghanistan in the case of Favreau’s Iron Man) in an effort to create the illusion of thematic depth.
Where you stand on these types of interpretative games will, in part, be a function on where you stand on issues such as a the Death of the Author and whether you see works as the sole responsibility of an auteur or something that artist and audience create together as part of a symbiotic relationship. Personally, I tend to shuffle back and forth between the two extremes but I generally think that if a director and a film are to be credited with a particular set of ideas then considerable effort needs to go into developing those ideas within the text of the film. This brings us to Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan, a Golden Globe-winning Russian film whose title contains almost the entirety of its thematic substance.
Set in the town of Teriberka on the shore of the Barents Sea, Leviathan tells a story that revolves around a huge house built on a hill overlooking the sea. For reasons that are never made entirely clear, the house is currently owned by a hot-headed drunken handyman by the name of Kolya. The film begins with Kolya awaiting the arrival of Dmitri, a well-connected Moscow lawyer who has volunteered to help Kolya in a lawsuit against the town.
Ostensibly a compulsory purchase order from the town council, the suit is actually an attempt by the corrupt local mayor to force Kolya to sell him his plot of land for considerably less than the market price. Upon arriving in town and reading the legal papers, Dmitri informs Kolya that he will likely lose the case but Dmitri’s contacts have provided him with enough dirt on the mayor to ensure that he will either back down or pay Kolya the market rate.
Kolya does indeed lose the case and when Dmitri presents the mayor with a thick file documenting his criminal activities, the mayor appears to relent as he suspects that Dmitri might actually be better connected than he. Terrified that this lawyer might constitute a punishment from the party leadership, the mayor agrees to pay Kolya his asking price but only as a means of buying himself some time to make inquiries.
Like many foreign films that secure a release in English-speaking countries, Leviathan does an excellent job of looking like a substantial work of cinematic art: Shot on the banks of the Barents Sea, Leviathan benefits hugely from the stark beauty of the Russian coastline while Zvyagintsev uses a combination of filters and post-production saturation-meddling to force the film into a really rather striking palette of pinks, greys, and washed-out greens. Despite the presence of crime film themes, Zvyagintsev gives the film a very stately rhythm that encourages us to reflect not only on the misery and injustice of this fictional world, but also the complexity of its characters.
Well… I say complexity but in truth, Leviathan is the story of two hot-headed drunks who would rather beat their opponents into submission than win people over and make friends. One drunk is an unemployed handyman who happens to be friends with a lawyer while the other is a local mayor with connections both political and criminal. Both men are hot-headed imbeciles whose fondness for vodka encourages them to do stupid things but whereas one of these drunks is powerful enough to be insulated from his own stupidity, the other makes one mistake and winds up losing everything.
As a study of Russian political corruption, Leviathan is unsubtle and uninterested. Zvyagintsev suggests that the mayor might have connections to organised crime and the Orthodox Church as well as Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party but the nature of those connections is never unpacked meaning that the film neither rises above to level of the stereotype nor gets to grip with the nature of Russian society other than to wave its hands, roll its eyes and decry it all as a nest of undifferentiated corruption. As a study of human psychology, Leviathan is also lacking as Zvyagintsev never unpacks his characters in a way that would help us understand their flaws and positions. This lack of care and attention is particularly galling in the case of Kolya’s beautiful wife Lilia who does little beyond serve as a punching bag for Kolya, his son, the mayor and the lawyer.
Leviathan looks great and features some lovely performances but its thematic content really struggles to evolve beyond the confines of a film about a miserably drunk who winds up being destroyed by a corrupt and uncaring world. That is until you start thinking about the film’s title…
Leviathan’s title is somewhat hermeneutically over-determined as ‘leviathan’ features in a number of different mythological systems. Most obviously, the title refers to the great sea monster from the Book of Job, verse 41:
1 Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope?
2 Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?
3 Will he keep begging you for mercy? Will he speak to you with gentle words?
4 Will he make an agreement with you for you to take him as your slave for life?
5 Can you make a pet of him like a bird or put him on a leash for your girls?
6 Will traders barter for him? Will they divide him up among the merchants?
7 Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears?
8 If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again!
9 Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.
10 No-one is fierce enough to rouse him. Who then is able to stand against me?
11 Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.
12 I will not fail to speak of his limbs, his strength and his graceful form.
13 Who can strip off his outer coat? Who would approach him with a bridle?
14 Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth?
15 His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together;
16 Each is so close to the next that no air can pass between.
17 They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted.
18 His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn.
19 Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out.
20 Smoke pours from his nostrils as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.
21 His breath sets coals ablaze, and flames dart from his mouth.
22 Strength resides in his neck; dismay goes before him.
23 The folds of his flesh are tightly joined; they are firm and immovable.
24 His chest is hard as rock, hard as a lower millstone.
25 When he rises up, the mighty are terrified; they retreat before his thrashing.
26 The sword that reaches him has no effect, nor does the spear or the dart or the javelin.
27 Iron he treats like straw and bronze like rotten wood.
28 Arrows do not make him flee, sling stones are like chaff to him.
29 A club seems to him but a piece of straw, he laughs at the rattling of the lance.
30 His undersides are jagged potsherds, leaving a trail in the mud like a threshing-sledge.
31 He makes the depths churn like a boiling cauldron and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.
32 Behind him he leaves a glistening wake; one would think the deep had white hair.
33 Nothing on earth is his equal—a creature without fear.
34 He looks down on all that are haughty; he is king over all that are proud.
Jewish literature refers to Leviathan as a great sea dragon whose body will be served up to the righteous in the ‘Time to Come’ and Christians turned this image of a great evil that is fated to be defeated and consumed into a more-or-less literal representation of Satan. Ever-alert to the symbolic potentialities of Christian myth, demonologists and Satanists have also developed this image and come to associate Leviathan with the image of the hellmouth and the idea of evil escaping from hell and seeping into the fabric of the world. Indeed, the fact that the Book of Job describes Leviathan in terms of ubiquitous household objects encourages us to view it not as something exotic and remote but as something that is omnipresent and pervasive, like sin. This idea of something tangibly malevolent emerging out of everyday household objects is certainly present in Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan as the director presents the corruption and injustice facing Kolya as something that is not only inescapable but also present in the world in a very literal sense.
The 16th Century philosopher Thomas Hobbes also believed that malevolence was an inescapable aspect of the human condition. Famously describing our state of nature as ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, Hobbes used the term ‘leviathan’ to refer to a political sovereignty that would ‘look down on all that are haughty’ and be ‘king over all that are proud’. Hobbes argued for the creation of an artificial leviathan as a solution to the problem posed by humanity’s ugly nature and the political aspects of Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan perfectly capture Hobbes’ double meaning as Zvyagintsev depicts the Russian state as a supposed solution to the problem of human nature that only serves to encourage the spread of injustice and cruelty.
The title of Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan is hugely evocative as the term ‘leviathan’ can be unpacked across many of the most longstanding symbolic structures in Western culture. Literally all Zyagintsev had to do was release a downbeat film involving some local officials and our existing relationship to the term ‘leviathan’ would do all the heavy lifting and transform a squalid story about Russian drunks into a powerful political allegory. Leviathan is a beautiful film with a number of lovely moments but contrary to most reviewers, I cannot help but view it as yet further proof that contemporary art house directors are content to sit on their laurels and build their films from yesterday’s techniques and today’s overly charitable audiences. Frankly… if I wanted to reflect on the fascinating double meaning of the term ‘Leviathan’, I could have looked at Abraham Bosse’s famous frontispiece to the original edition of Hobbes’ book as Zvyagintsev adds precious little to it.