As far as titles go, they don’t get much more on-the-nose than Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest film, Loveless. The Leviathan director has never been known for excessive warmth or optimism, but Loveless is bleaker and more cynical than any recent film that I can call to mind. If film noir hinges on irredeemable people doing awful things and facing terrible consequences, Zvyagintsev has crafted a world in which similarly irredeemable people live in a world so consumed by awful things that consequences seem almost irrelevant. It’s a pitch-black melodrama that functions as a political allegory and leaves absolutely no room for hope, either for its characters or the culture they inhabit.
Set in Russia during the early days of Putin’s push to annex Crimea, Zvyagintsev’s film follows a warring couple on the verge of divorce. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) wants to shack up with his heavily pregnant mistress, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is ready for a life of luxury with her oligarchic lover. The only problem is they have a 12-year-old son (Matvey Novikov as Alyosha) whom neither wants to take care of — dad thinks mom should take him, mom wants to send him off to a boarding school she describes as an orphanage, and both seem to think they would have been better off having gotten an abortion. But what neither knows is that Alyosha has been privy to these arguments and, having had enough of his loveless home life (get it?), runs away. What ensues — at least after mom and dad finally notice their son’s absence days later, that is — consists of a half-hearted search involving underfunded and unconcerned police, inept volunteers and a pair of parents who seem far more concerned with lashing out at each other and engaging in their respective trysts than with their own child’s well-being.
Zvyagintsev realizes his vision of a heartless Russia masterfully. The landscape is perpetually frozen, and only the hearts of his characters seem colder. A wide shot of a search party combing through an apartment block is framed behind falling snow, and as the flashlights peek out of doors and windows from floor to floor, the perfunctory and futile nature of the expedition is revealed through entirely visual means. As the story progresses, we watch Boris and Zhenya as their new relationships devolve — from passionate sexual embraces to emotionally distant cuddling, and ultimately to complete indifference — mirroring the lack of fulfillment that reaching for something new instead of dealing with the problems at hand necessarily incurs. It’s a metaphor.
If Loveless is a film particularly lacking in hope, it’s also one that conveys a prescient warning. The mistakes of the past are repeated ad infinitum because no one seems inclined to learn from them, and lives are destroyed in the process. The film’s central relationships are intended to depict the callous disregard for humanity that defines Putinistic plutocracy and the complacency that makes such power structures possible in the first place. There’s no hope for Alyosha, and there’s no hope for the Russian people — or the rest of the world — as long as everyone is fixated on satisfying their baser urges rather than putting in the hard work to grow in a positive direction. Zvyagintsev has made a great film, but one that’s almost as difficult to write about as it is to watch — so in the interest of lighenting up this review, I’ll paraphrase a quote from the great Nigel Tufnel in This Is Spinal Tap in summation: “It’s like, how much more bleak could this be? And the answer is none. None more bleak.” Rated R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image.
Now Playing at Grail Moviehouse.