The film opens with quiet, breathless nature scenes. It’s almost documentary-like: birds glide across a white lake, almost frozen in its reflection of a cold, snowy Russian winter. Then the fixated camera suddenly moves, gliding and turning like the birds, and I realise that I am about to witness something truly beautiful and heart-shaking.
Directed by Andrey Zyvaginstev and co-written with Oleg Negin, Loveless is a tragedy that tells the timeless story of two parents in the midst of a hateful, toxic divorce. They are so self-consumed by their anger and desire, that they almost don’t realise that their only son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), has gone missing.
Set in contemporary Moscow, the parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin), become entrenched in a fight filled with loathing and resentment one night; the father sits slumped, exhausted and speechless, in his chair, while his wife screams at him with words that could cut stone. She uses their son as an excuse to quarrel, arguing about who will look after him once their divorce is final; because, after all, he is the reason she fell pregnant, and she never really wanted the child. Her ignorance to the consequences of her speech becomes evident when she leaves the room blissfully unaware that her son was standing behind the door. He wails in silence, face fixated in an empty, broken scream. He has heard the entire conversation.
You will laugh, you will be moved, you may very well cry; but above all, you will be made to think.
Unaware of their son’s distraught emotional state, it takes Zhenya and Boris two days after he’s run away to realise that he is missing. We don’t see Alyosha’s face again; rather, we are made to follow the ensuing heartbreak and madness of his parents, who are forced to come together to find the one thing they never knew they loved most: their son.
But the film cannot quite ascertain whether they never loved him, or whether they loved him more than anything. Thus, Zyvaginstev points to the fickleness of love. Zhenya and Boris were high school sweethearts; now they despise each other. Boris intends to marry a young woman who carries his child, while Zhenya believes she has finally found the man of her dreams. Their own selfish needs take precedent over that of their child’s, and herein lies the tragedy of the film—one that will haunt you long after you leave the cinema. How can a child be forgotten in all this mess? Is it too late to save him … to save themselves?
There is no doubt in my mind, however, that this film—which won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars—was made to be more than just a family drama. Instead, it is a social commentary on human flaws and Russian culture. Hidden just beneath the surface of brilliant dry humour and satisfying visual comedy lies dialogue and mis-en-scene that doesn’t hesitate to poke at the great Russian bear. A controlling, manipulative government; stifling, maddening social hierarchy; and a biased, irrelevant news media. All are on show, albeit safely in the corner.
The selfies, the cheating, and the self-obsession are things that the filmmakers mock and present to us unashamedly. “Here’s to love and selfies,” chortles a flock of young women at their friend’s hens night. A beautiful woman in a red dress gives a man her number, and then re-joins her boyfriend at their table. Boris and his girlfriend make passionate love, the drawn-out sounds and contrasting light making for a stark and compelling love scene. Zhenya’s isolated and spiteful mother trembles after telling her only daughter to “fuck off”. There is love, and lust, and there is a gaping abyss where no love exists at all. You will want to witness it all in Loveless.
This film is made timeless by the beauty and eloquence of the striking filmmaking techniques and cinematography. Led by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, the film takes on a realistic, natural look, using shadows and attention to detail to create intense, caught-in-the-moment scenes that simultaneously shock and subdue. Similarly, the script was written with such skill that the film was regularly amusing without working too hard to be so. It perfectly balanced a mixture of raw pain and hatred with touching, heartfelt humour, to create a carefully constructed picture of pure tragedy.
The sparse but wonderfully timed musical score elevated the film to another level, and I noted similarities between the style of their melodramatic orchestral music and that of Revenant’s. Like the aforementioned film, nature also drew focus. The slow-falling snow reappeared throughout the film, and was particularly noticeable in the opening and final scenes. Is it beautiful, or is it dangerous? Like the turbulent relationships of the adult characters, all is not clear. Yet the falling snow, dark, shifting figures, and fading missing posters, gave this film a distinct feeling of horror at times.
The only character who we seem to be able to rely on is the commanding coordinator—the leading officer of the volunteer search party—who works tirelessly to find Alyosha. His blunt yet pragmatic leadership seems to offer the only sense of strength and hope, since the parents spiral into despair and cannot seem to reconcile their differences.
As the search extends into weeks and then into months, Zhenya and Boris, and the audience, must ask: is it too late to realise that you love someone? Ultimately, the tragedy is in the inability of the parents to grow, because it is crushing to watch them fall and never rise again. Zhenya remains ignorant, and Boris, absent. At the end of this film, you will catch yourself choking on a sadness that only heartbreak can inspire.
So, choke, and relish it. This is Russian filmmaking in all its loveless glory.