Two films from two nations (USA and Russia) are amongst the most acclaimed of 2014 and are the favorites to win Best Picture and Best Foreign Film respectively at the Academy Awards. They are Boyhood (directed by Richard Linklater, 2014) and Leviathan (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014). A lot has been said about Boyhood’s production of twelve years in the making (2002-2013), a landmark in cinema history. It is about the lives of a Texas family, the protagonist being Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), a boy who ages from seven to eighteen. The passing of time concerns Mason Jr.’s experience with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his parents Olivia and Mason Sr. (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke)’s separation. Leviathan is set in a Russian coastal town, Kirovsk by the Barents Sea. It is also about a family – Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and their teenage son Romka (Sergey Pokhodaev)- whose legal battle with a corrupt major Vadim (Roman Madyanov) puts them in hot water.
Boyhood’s strengths should not be overshadowed by its long production. As a producer of the film stated, Richard Linklater’s heart is at the centre of it. It is his sensibility of what boyhood is. Linklater is no stranger to watching characters over periods of time. His Before trilogy, Before Sunrise,Before Sunset, and Before Midnight (Linklater, 2013), follow the relationship between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) on one day in each film, revisited every nine years. Boyhood’s strengths are in the episodic nature of the passing time: Mason Jr. learning about life from his parents, his great bond with his father and the failed relationships of his well-to-do mother. It is his mother’s caring nature that brings out Mason Jr.’s sensitivity in later scenes. The strongest scenes are those with Ethan Hawke, whose laid back form of parenting helps Mason Jr. on his way when he reaches his teens.
There is a scene towards the end of the film when Mason Jr. and his father are at a bar, and upon seeing the pool table and ages of the characters, I was reminded of another film, Waterland (directed by Stephen Gyllenhaal, 1992) in which Jeremy Irons, a history teacher, poses as Ethan Hawke’s father to let him buy a beer as they play pool. It is just a reminder of how long Ethan Hawke has been making films and how great he is. He tells Mason Jr. “the good news is you’re feeling stuff. And you’ve got to hold on to that.” It perfectly sums up the film and what I hope is the people’s reaction to it – the feeling of the passing of time rather than the focusing on it.
Leviathan is a modern reworking of the Book of Job. Kolya’s land and business are eyed by the Major Vadim. The film’s opening scene has the camera in the backseat of a car, with Kolya and his friend Dmitri (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) in the front. I was in sitting in a small cinema and was close to the screen, and it felt like I was in the back seat. Kirovsk has a real sense of place in the film, an almost isolated place of coldness and beauty, a place where I want be. It is about the family’s legal battle to keep what they are entitled to and how it affects them. Lilya is sixteen years younger than Koyla; she seems to be good mother to Romka. Her close friend Angela (Anna Ukolova) and her husband Pacha (Aleksey Rozin) seem to be her only friends. As my friend who I saw it with told me, the film was very ingenious about what it showed you and didn’t show you. The film, he continued, carried on beyond where you expected it to end, like life. There are echoes of The Seventh Continent (directed by Michael Haneke, 1989) towards the end; you will see what I mean. Static shots of the landscape are beautiful, crisp and haunting.
Where Boyhood’s narrative style is episodic, Linklater interested in the crucial moments of the boy’s life, Leviathan’s is slow. How often to do you hear someone telling you that a weakness of a film is its slow pacing? Slow cinema in the work of Zvyagintsev, Haneke, von Trier, Tarr, Sokurov, Ceylan, The Romanian New Wave etc. is passionately cinematic in showing the grueling moment. Zvyaginstev’s camera lingers on its characters; each have a dark future, Zvyaginstev gives them passing moments of grace.
I saw these films months ago and am writing solely from memory. Boyhood and Leviathan are about the nature of families, for better or for worse. At two hours and forty minutes Boyhood spans eleven years, giving you an episodic feel of living at home and then leaving to find yourself; Mason Jr. thinks he has an idea. At two hours and sixteen minutes Leviathan shows you one man’s determination to keep what is his in a corrupt state; he feels alone throughout the film, he dreams of a better Russia. What does the future hold for his son? Both films are about individuals (Koyla and Mason Jr.) from large countries, one who hashis life in front of him, and the other who has already had his best years. Boyhood’s America has opportunity at its fingertips. The great thing about Leviathan is that it seems to be more of an ensemble; there are times when every character is in a sense the protagonist.