Art, Film review

Leviathan and The Room: Two films of Polar Opposites

This is an overview of two fabulous films I watched recently. One is a brilliant film shown in Cannes, the other one is a cult classic featuring in the hall of fame of the flops.

I learned the name of Leviathan (2014) while trying to find about Deux Jours, Une Nuit. Like Deux Jours, Leviathan was also shown in Cannes in 2014 and was nominated for Palme d’Or. The poster of the film was equally eye-catching — a man sitting on a rock with a giant whale skeleton lying in front, on the seashore. I wanted to watch the film since, but the opportunity didn’t come until last month.

It was a stunning film. At the end of it, I was speechless. The protagonist of the film resembled a typical example of a Shakespearean tragedy. There are instances when you think that the situation couldn’t get any worse, but it does, and it’s relentless. It was an example of the power struggle on the fringes of Russia, where Moscow and its influence means nothing to the power sharks. It’s a tale of exploitation, desperation, disillusionment and betrayal. Shot in the Murmansk Oblast, Leviathan showcases the murky backdrops to set the dark tone of the film. The dilapidated infrastructure, symbolic shooting of the Soviet leaders’ portraits, the ostentatious focus on the word Pravda (truth) by the Orthodox Church priest — it heralded a Russia far away from the shining riches of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Here, despite the camaraderie in the working class people, they live in fear, they don’t go against the flow, although inherently, there is a deep-seated hatred and disappointment of being deserted in the past.

Leviathan won international accolades just as it did criticism from the Russian cultural ministry for wrongly depicting Russian rural lifestyle where people stay drunk all the time, they bicker and commit adultery, the church brainwashes corrupt politicians. We don’t know the truth, but I can draw parallels to another brilliant film I watched many years back called Manorama Six Feet Under. In both films, politics was shown as the source of power, and exploitation that the usurpers cherish to the fullest. In an Indian backdrop, there was no doubt that the film was based on truth. For Leviathan, I’d like to be proven wrong, but for now, I believe the story is almost a true depiction of life at the far reaches of Russia. However, internationally acclaimed films about Russia are perhaps needed to be taken with a pinch of salt, where most of the successful films are found to be castigating the Soviet past.

Apart from the worrying storyline, Leviathan features brilliant acting, some breathtaking views, and beautiful music scores. Although halfway into the film, you’d start to hope that something positive happens to the central character Kolya, and hope there is some justice, that justice doesn’t happen. Leviathan is not a story that fills the viewers with a feeling of optimism and hope. Instead it drives home the message that life is not fair and it is controlled by the people with power. For the rest, it’s just a story of survival. It is a remarkable film and I’m glad I finally managed to watch it, although it took me three years.

For the other film, I don’t know where to begin. I’ve often written about brilliant films, that change your whole perspective about cinema and its role in our lives. The Room (2003) is certainly not one of them. The Room is, on the contrary, something that’s known as SBIG — So Bad It’s Good. And when someone makes a film featuring the filmmaker of that original film, you’ll have to admit it must be spectacularly disastrous.

Poster for the film
Source: Adweek

The Room is the brainchild of Tommy Wiseau. It was originally played in theatres, but Tommy was so inspired by it that he wrote a book. When nobody published it, he decided to produce a film. The end result is The Room, where Wiseau played the protagonist apart from his many other credits. When within five minutes into the film, Tommy has sex with Lisa, the female lead of the film, and within another ten minute, the same scene is repeated, you know that this is going to be hilarious. Even porns have a better script and acting on them. The Room has nothing to boast about. The film is all about a banker Johnny in San Francisco and his fiancée Lisa, who has an affair with Johnny’s friend Mark. The story revolves around Johnny’s obsession with Lisa, Lisa’s lack of love for Johnny, and then Mark’s hesitation in choosing between Johnny and Lisa. Outside this, many characters pop in and out but fail to play a significant role. The script is incoherent, the acting is amateurish, editing nonexistent. It felt as if a dictator trying to make a film about himself. Tommy kept changing the dialogues, forcibly inserted scenes that had no relevance to the film like men playing football in their tuxedos. The budget for the film apparently surpassed $6 million whereas the first two weeks taking in the box-office came to about merely $1900! The Room is an ultimate disaster movie, with Tommy Wiseau at the helm.

With such a catastrophic start, one would expect the film to end up in cold storage with some old DVDs turning up in 99p stores in some remote seaside town. Possibly with a two for one offer. But The Room was destined to become something else. A legend. A cult classic. So 15 years since it was first released, The Room has its range of arcane followers — it often had midnight screenings across San Francisco, where Tommy Wiseau attended many times and posed with fans. Apart from this, Tommy Wiseau was an enigma to the crowd. The Room is his only prominent screen appearance. Nothing is known about his past that he claimed, like being of Eastern European origin but growing up in Paris. There were speculations that he made the over-budgeted film to get rid of the black money earned from dubious sources. Speculations led to many researchers delve into Tommy’s past life. And when Greg Sestero, who played Tommy’s friend Mike, wrote Disaster Artist about making of The Room, that opened up many facets of Tommy as well as unknown facts about the film. Hollywood rejected Tommy Wiseau in The Room, but then, thanks to its eccentricity, The Room will be reborn in Disaster Artist (2017), the screen realisation of Sestero’s book.

Tommy Wiseau in You're tearing me apart dialogue

Sometimes in our life, we encounter things that are good and things that are bad. It’s the way of life. Both have their own roles to play. The same applies to films. You watch Leviathan, and then watch The Room and realise how good or bad filmmaking could be. What puts these two films into perspective is their budget — The Room with its extravagant spendings coughed up nearly $6m, whereas Leviathan was made on a shoestring budget of c. $4m. This only serves as an example that good films should not cost a huge budget, and you can throw millions but can still end up making a car-crash like The Room. It was a pleasure watching Leviathan, and The Room was painful to watch, but both films will feature in the hall of fame of the epic films I’ve watched — but for very different reasons.

Yet, at one aspect they both seem equal. In The Room, despite the end result was hilarious, Tommy Wiseau gave more than 100% of his abilities. He was frivolous, but it can be seen that there was not shortage of his dedication. So was Andrey Zvyagintsev in making Leviathan. Even though the end results are polar opposites, both filmmakers would still get the kudos for their dedication to tell a story they wanted to tell, irrespective of the reception.