In this Russian drama, a couple in the process of a bitter divorce has selfishly ignored their twelve-year-old son Alexey (Matvey Novikov) in pursuit of new relationships. When the boy goes missing, the pair are finally forced to acknowledge his existence before they can continue with their lives.
Father Boris (Aleksey Rozin) comes across as selfish and uncaring, mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) worse. She emphasises how much she wishes she had aborted Alexey in the womb with savage glee, giving the audience an idea of how awful it must have been for this boy growing up. Zhenya may wallow in self-pity at having spent twelve years in a loveless marriage, but never does she acknowledge that being brought up in such a bitter environment can destroy someone forever.
This particular diatribe of hers comes in the aftermath of a sex scene, and it’s clear that the relationships Boris and Zhenya both value are sexual ones. Boris already has another woman pregnant, and the film plays with deliberate ambivalence over the question of whether he will learn the mistakes from how Alexey was raised.
It may be a contextual Kuleshov effect, but Zhenya has a face that feels inherently dislikable, and Spivak’s is a performance which fully inhabits and explores the character’s deplorable traits. Boris almost becomes a protagonist purely by contrast to her, in spite of his actions being arguably even worse.
The film’s scathing critique is reserved not just for these characters in specific, but an uncaring, hypocritical society that can allow such a situation to arise. A recurrent symbol is the divisiveness phones can bring, an obvious yet pertinent highlighting of the self-absorption eating away at the Russian urban community.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev won a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar with his 2014 film Leviathan, and Loveless (original title Nelyubov) has been nominated too. It’s clear throughout Loveless that Zvyagintsev is a master filmmaker, uniting with cinematographer Mikhail Krichman to justify the cliche of ‘every frame a painting’.
In spite of the desolate surrounds and hollowing source material, a profound beauty is found amongst the abandoned buildings and forests surrounding Moscow. The camera often pans and tracks, engaging and indulging the audience in a way the narrative deliberately does not.
A highlight of the film is a confrontation between Zhenya and her mother – the source of her own maternal coldness. The establishment of Boris and Zhenya’s lives is also expertly done, as Alexey is made important by his absence. There are moments in the protracted search that can captivate, though there are also points where the mind starts to wander. As a work of art, Loveless certainly does nothing to dispel ideas of 21st century Russia as a cold and unforgiving place.
Even if the narrative stretches and frustrates the audience, this is a film with clear stylistic ability and thematic purpose. Loveless deserves to be seen, even if it is not a film to fill you with any remote sense of joy.
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