For “Loveless,” Alexander Rodnyansky, Mr. Zvyagintsev’s longtime producer, raised money from investors in Russia and Western Europe. In Russia, the movie attracted almost 350,000 viewers and had ticket sales of about $1.6 million.
“It is as big as a Russian art-house movie can get,” said Anton Dolin, a movie critic, calling Mr. Zvyagintsev perhaps the most significant Russian artist working in film. “He is the one who uses his talent to really try to honestly reflect the political and social life in Russia today.”
“Loveless” tells the story of Boris and Zhenya, a successful young couple battling through a poisonous divorce, each bent on avoiding custody of their 12-year-old son, Alyosha. Distracted by new lovers, they take two days to realize that Alyosha has gone missing.
The rest of the movie — paced like a crime thriller — revolves around the nightmarish effort to find him, spearheaded by volunteers because the police lack the interest and the means.
Mr. Zvyagintsev said he first sought to make a Russian version of Ingmar Bergman’s searing “Scenes from a Marriage.” When he could not secure the rights, he and Oleg Negin, his longtime writing partner, found inspiration in a news report about a missing persons nonprofit, unusual for Russia in its effectiveness, and combined that with the drama of a family rotting from inside.
Production proved almost as hair-raising as the script. Set in the fall, filming had barely begun in October 2016 when snow blanketed Moscow and stayed. The director was forced to recreate autumn during the spring thaw, using stored leaves.
Two key scenes, about 15 minutes in total, were missing when Mr. Zvyagintsev submitted the film to the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. He shot the last scene three days before the festival announced that it would include the movie. He edited the final version in roughly a month.
“Those were extreme circumstances,” said the soft-spoken director, sitting in a small Moscow cafe a day after a 12-hour flight from Los Angeles. He had not shaved; his eyes were alert behind black glasses, but accented by dark circles. His dark hair cropped short, he wore a bulky black turtleneck sweater flecked with multicolored dots.
“Loveless” won a Jury Prize at Cannes last May, and the director has been on the road flogging it ever since.
Mr. Zvyagintsev, 54, set out to become an actor.
Born in the Siberian city of Novosibirsk, he was 4 when his parents announced that they were splitting up and his father looked him in the eye and asked him to choose a parent. (He insisted that this did not inform the devastating scene when the audience understands that Alyosha knows that he is not wanted.)
His mother, a Russian literature teacher, proved to be the right pick, he said: She always supported his choices, whereas his father, showing up just a few times, banged on the table and yelled when he discovered that his adolescent son was in theater school.
Moving to Moscow to continue his training, Mr. Zvyagintsev worked for three years as a dvornik, a kind of building caretaker. In Soviet times, the job appealed to artists because it came with a free apartment and plenty of spare time.
He haunted the Museum of Cinema, lapping up movies by foreign auteurs. Still chasing an acting career, he landed just two stage roles in a decade and “nothing interesting” in the way of television parts.
He refuses to discuss his family life publicly, saying only that over time he became the father of four boys ranging in age from 32 to his youngest, who is 8, from his current marriage.
His first directing gigs were television commercials. That checkered, decade-long route to standing behind the movie camera drives some of the antagonism toward him in Russia.
He is from the outback, and despite being self-taught rather than attending Moscow’s prestigious All-Russia Institute For Cinematography, where most Russian directors train, he is one of the few known internationally.
Asked why such a gloomy view of Russia saturates his films, Mr. Zvyagintsev said that it was not a question of choice, but rather his innate disposition. When he studied theater, for example, the Greek tragedies drew him far more than the comedies.
“You observe what seems especially important to you, and you focus the attention of the audience on this, and that’s it,” he said. “You don’t delve into why it is that you register only such dark sides of life.”
The moodiness of his movies — and a look that depends on mostly natural light and wide angles — has prompted further accusations that Mr. Zvyagintsev gained fame by imitating Andrei Tarkovsky, the last Russian director to develop a cult following in the West.
Mr. Dolin, the critic, said that there was no question that Mr. Tarkovsky’s work influenced Mr. Zvyagintsev, but that dismissing him as an imitation was nonsense.
“If someone could simply imitate Tarkovsky to be successful, there were be millions of Zvyagintsevs, anyone could do it,” Mr. Dolin said. “Just go to some mysterious Russian forest, play some senseless words offscreen, read some poetry and get an Oscar or a Golden Lion or a Golden Palm or whatever.”
Mr. Zvyagintsev’s fans consider him a perfectionist whose movies reflect Russian reality, a difficult picture that most directors avoid by sticking to nationalistic films or comedies.
Not surprisingly, official organs panned “Loveless.”
Rossiyskaya Gazeta, a government newspaper, called it a “sad irony” that such “tormented and counterproductive introspection” was considered “the most representative slice of not only Russian culture, but of Russian society.”
Even some Russians who respect Mr. Zvyagintsev’s work avoid watching his movies because the subject matter is so discomforting. That drives the director to despair.
It is like the fairy tale about the wicked princess who smashes the mirror when it shows her true image, he said. “It’s simply that when you raise pointed questions and show an unattractive portrait of your contemporaries, few people want to watch this.”
His role as social critic, however, is another reason the art-house crowd tends to respect Mr. Zvyagintsev. He is one of the few high-profile artists still brave enough to openly criticize the Russian government.
He has disparaged the recent crackdown on the arts, including the house arrest of a prominent theater director and the use of censorship for the first time in years to ban a foreign movie, “The Death of Stalin.”
“We believed that in 1991 that we were present for the burial of the C.P.S.U.,” he said referring to the one-party state of the Soviet Union. “The burial did not take place. Instead, the corpse rose from the coffin and is walking around and frightening us once again.”
“Leviathan” was framed by the chilly expanses of the Barents Sea, whereas “Loveless” begins and ends with long shots of the ghostly forest where Alyosha rambles after school and later searchers discover his jacket.
“It is simply mighty,” Mr. Zvyagintsev said, and indifferent to human matters. “It is overpowering. It is crushing.”
It is human instinct to fear the forest, Mr. Zvyagintsev said. “I think the forest — any depiction of the forest — always elicits a sense of mystery, of a fairy tale, and a certain anxiety that some kind of predatory animal can suddenly jump out of there.”
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