by Ken Bakely
Throughout Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a mounting feeling of dread is augmented by sharp, incisive commentary on the ills of modern day Russia. We see it in the characters; the film centers around Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), an estranged, embittered couple who are going through a nasty divorce. In an early scene, they fight a typically brutal war of words. In the process, we learn that these aren’t the kind of people who would fight for custody of their young son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), but rather over who has to take care of the kid. Long frightened by his parents’ behavior, Alyosha runs away from home, disappearing into the cold, dark woods near the river that runs next to his school.
These early scenes establish the film’s mood and intent. In the drab chill of winter, characters move with a fast zip amongst gray skies and early darkness. Yet at the start, when we see Alyosha coming home from school, he walks slowly, taking detours, minimizing the time he must spend with his parents. When he disappears, Zhenya and Boris have already moved in with new partners. They were eager to complete the separation, work out a begrudging arrangement regarding the kid, and move on with their lives. We sense that a large degree of their frustration is more about the inconveniencing of their plans, rather than an immediate fear for the child’s well-being. After all, the movie never follows up on his whereabouts when he’s not in their presence. Loveless takes us through the selfishness, short-sightedness, and robotic drive of its middle-class setting. No one’s struggling for cash here – every living space is clean, well-furnished, and empty in a sufficiently trendy way – but Zvyagintsev cuts deep in showing how his characters have long abandoned the basic tenets of empathy.
The question of whether Alyosha returns home isn’t one to be answered in a spoiler-free review, but the reveal itself is not a surprise. Loveless is a story without cobbled endings or neat resolutions – the criticisms it levels and the parallels it draws are ongoing, at once specifically Russian and inherently global. It’s both one of the film’s most pertinent draws and one of its most miscalculated indicators. What starts as a buzzing mix of radio news bulletins and coded conversations blows into a prolonged third act sequence of TV news segments covering Russia’s actions in Ukraine (the movie is set in 2012), turning a searing allegory into a separate plot point. The final shot of the film depicts a character running on a treadmill, which, in context, is thuddingly obvious. Zvyagintsev’s heightened sociopolitical consciousness is neither a surprise nor a detriment. But his aim to connect is most successful when left to the plot’s own devices.
After all, he’s ruthlessly effective at compulsive, attentive tragedy. When we meet Zhenya and Boris, we know that there is no hope of their reconciliation, and everyone involved knows it as well. Scenes taking place in the homes of their respective significant others are almost impenetrably darkened. People walk past lamps and light switches but never turn them on, as the winter’s dull sunlight leaks in through the windows. In Spivak and Rozin’s shattered, resigned performances, we see Loveless in all its truly frightening implications: a reality their characters wish to escape, but face grim consequences for. Zvyagintsev frames Alyosha in frequent close-ups, focusing on his wide eyes and tired gazes; his innocence depleted through rough scrapes of cynicism and stripped of any emotional support.
It’s most heartrending during the first argument. Zhenya and Boris take a break from their traumatic shouting match – he goes into the kitchen, she walks into the hallway to use the bathroom. When she heads back out, she closes the hallway door, and standing behind it is Alyosha, completely forgotten through this whole ordeal, having heard every word of his parents’ total disdain for the responsibilities they ostensibly have towards him. He’s crying, his face open in a silent scream, fearful to make a sound and draw more anger. Loveless establishes this unrelenting bleakness from the very start, but it’s also a sign of the script’s rich and biting intelligence. Zvyagintsev intends to do more than depress us. He uses startling images and an onslaught of deceptively emotionless exteriors to navigate a deep valley of the invisible and the neglected.