Andrey Zvyagintsev convinced me that his new movie, Loveless, was great pretty early in the first reel. We’ve seen a married couple, Boris and Zhenya, fighting in their apartment, and it’s clear they despise each other. They trade pointed insults, and fight over who has to keep their son, Alyosha, after they divorce. Not who gets to, who has to. Zhenya never wanted a child anyway, and makes no bones about the fact that her pregnancy was a mistake and should have been aborted. Boris has already found a new girlfriend who is pregnant with his (wanted) child. Zhenya suggests that Alyosha would do well in boarding school, since he’ll probably just end up in the army anyway. She gets up to go to the bathroom, closing the bedroom door, behind which her son has been listening to the whole conversation. He cries, hard but silently, in darkness.
The image hits you with the force of a punch to your stomach. That feeling basically never leaves; Zvyagintsev is a deceptively emotional director. His last film, Leviathan, was about institutional corruption in Russia; it so angered the authorities, that he could not get government funding for Loveless. This hasn’t slowed his crushing criticisms of Russian society—he still hits hard. It’s not long after the initial scenes that Alyosha goes missing. Zhenya’s first instinct, naturally, is to call the police. The reporting officer as good as tells her that governmental bureaucracy will prevent the police from doing much more than waiting, since most ‘runaways’ come back after ‘ten days at most.’ She’d be better off calling a local volunteer search-and-rescue squad—they can get results.
Zhenya and Boris are so damaged, they can’t behave themselves even when the volunteers arrive. ‘He’s only got one friend, I think,’ Zhenya says to the supervisor. He scribbles notes down. ‘You think. Mmhmm.’ ‘The little brat probably ran off to his grandma’s,’ Boris offers, not quite helpfully. The man scribbles some more; ‘ “Brat.” Mmhmm.’ You sense that the volunteer thinks running off may have been the best course of action for little Alyosha. Somewhere in the middle of the film, you may find yourself thinking it’s better for him if he’s never found.
The title doesn’t just apply to the marriage of the central couple, though its applicability is pretty obvious. ‘Loveless’ can describe pretty much every character. The search for Alyosha begins at Zhenya’s mother’s house, and the old woman is none too happy to be woken up after dark. She goes on a tirade: ‘Alyosha is missing? You’re lying, right? To get me to sympathise. You’re divorcing; so what, you’re just gonna hand the bastard over to me? I’m not babysitting!’ eventually culminating in ‘You should have had an abortion!’ A peach, this one. And when Boris’s girlfriend calls during the search, she’s livid he’s not going to see her: ‘Where have you been? You took a day off work, and a day off from me too, huh? I’m lonely!’ Everyone we see is a black hole; love can’t escape their event horizon, leaving the landscape lonely and desolate.
Though I’m usually the first one to say that narrative is overrated, I’d be remiss not to report that I felt the slightest disappointment with Loveless‘s final act. Intellectually, I know what Zvyagintsev’s trying to do; having set his film in 2012, with characters obliquely referencing the end of the world, he’s making a very pointed political and social metaphor. His characters hope their lives will change for the better, but feel an encroaching despair setting in. Zvyagintsev is expert at putting the audience into the feeling space of his characters, but I wonder if there would have been a way to do that without shortchanging certain plot strands.
No matter; this is really a small quibble when considering a work as absurdly well-directed as Loveless. Zvyagintsev fills his film with wondrous shots, made all the more sublime by the fact that they don’t really call attention to themselves. His command of tone is masterful. The biggest disappointment is after the last shot, because then we don’t get to watch the movie anymore.