Film Review: Loveless

An uncompromising view of a disintegrating marriage in a morally bankrupt Russian world, its truthfulness not easy to watch but compelling throughout.
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The narrative elements of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless could unfold almost anywhere, but its themes (its ethos) are rooted in a peculiarly Russian landscape, existential and literal.

The opening scene sets the stage: Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), a 12-year-old, leaves his school—a building that’s massive, institutionalized and impersonal—on a bleak, snowy day and wanders alone through a denuded forest, its decaying trees uprooted and overturned, its brittle branches broken and scattered across fallen leaves. A monochrome grey palette is pervasive.

Alyosha’s home life is equally unkind. There’s his parents’ corrosive marriage, pending divorce and their mind-numbing indifference to his feelings. While he is in his room attempting to do homework, his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), an abrasive narcissist, is guiding prospective apartment buyers through it as if he were not there. It’s a telling detail. Early on we see Alyosha silently crying his eyes out as his parents scream invective at each other. It’s heart-wrenching and difficult to watch.

Alyosha’s father, Boris (Alexei Rozin), the more beleaguered party in the combatant duo, is mostly concerned that he will lose his job if his born-again Christian boss finds out about the divorce. Only stable family men and women are hired and kept onboard. What an ironic evolution in the once allegedly God-free society.

Both Boris and Zhenya have lovers: Anton (Andris Keiss), a wealthy businessman (the new Russian capitalist), lives in a trendy upscale apartment. Now pregnant with Boris’ child, Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) resides with her mother in a rundown hovel.

Homes play a significant role in this film, revealing far more than the economics of their inhabitants. All the dwellings, regardless of class, are oppressive and unwelcoming, their lodgers making no effort at decoration. Still, at the end, the empty, barren rooms, once occupied by the unhappy family and now stripped of its presence, somehow feel abandoned and sad even as one hopes that the new tenants will make for a happier place.

Neither Boris nor Zhenya spends much time in that aforementioned home, and one morning Zhenya discovers that Alyosha has disappeared. The rest of the film marries mystery, suspense and police procedural with a psychological portrait of two unraveling human beings who are all the more devastated because they viewed their son as a burden from the outset and even now at moments seem relieved that he’s gone.

The image of parents in general and mothers in particular is harsh and unforgiving. Zhenya says she never wanted a child and was repulsed when she first held him, attitudes that have only grown more intense with time. She asks her lover if that makes her a monster. “The most beautiful monster in the world,” he purrs. Her own mom, equally onerous and devoid of maternal feelings, makes it clear that if Alyosha surfaces she will not take him in. Even Masha’s mother, a superficially more benign figure, is a harridan too. At the end she’s whining about the apartment’s congestion, suggesting that her grandchild be placed with other relatives, not because she is concerned with his well-being, but rather her own convenience. Of course, in light of the toddler’s brusque treatment at the hands of his father Boris, perhaps another home would be an improvement. But given the hard-edged, self-serving universe these characters occupy, it’ll probably make no difference either way.

Zvyagintsev’s Russia is a shattered society on every front, a defining motif in his earlier films as well. Think Leviathan and Elena, both written with Oleg Negin, who co-scripted Loveless—the latter most pointedly evoking a brutal amalgam of cultural and sociological contradictions. Old Communist despair and poverty live alongside a sleek, modern world awash in technology: the society’s collective attention fixed onto palm-clutched cellphones, and svelte women sporting low-cut dresses snapping selfies in glitzy restaurants. Simultaneously, abandoned, broken-down and flooded building husks that have not yet been demolished are equally evident.

Some of the most visually riveting scenes are set in these moribund, dark spaces as a line of investigators—old-style, bureaucratic cops joining forces with contemporary watchdog locals—negotiate their way through the ruins with flashlights in hand, casting circles of light on piles of detritus, while futilely searching for Alyosha.

Zvyagintsev knows well his psychologically bankrupt characters who are informed by the world from which they emerge, including national and international news events that are broadcast twenty-four/seven and largely serve as white noise, whatever horrific story is being recounted. They are the walking dead who are nonetheless tormented and the leading actors, both consummate performers, make that complexity palpable—nowhere more so than in the morgue where the parents are asked if they can identify a child’s corpse that turns out not to be their son. Their intense response that combines relief, despair and horror is a master class in acting. But what makes the scene so memorable is that despite their mutually shared feelings, they are in no way united; on the contrary, their marital rupture and personal isolation are all the more intense.

The final imagery is as evocative as the film’s first snippet. Now living with Anton in his glossy high-end apartment, Zhenya is working out on a treadmill as news of the Ukrainian War is broadcast in the background, her eyes almost glassily vacant. This is not a fun film, but it’s paradoxically compelling in its claustrophobic, no-exit authenticity.

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