This powerful, brooding film by director Andrei Zvyagintsev (who also gave us the equally compelling Leviathan in 2014) offers a melancholic slice of life in contemporary Russia. A nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, it eventually lost out to Sebastian Leilio’s A Fantastic Woman, but it’s nonetheless a superb drama that deserves wide acclaim.
Loveless focuses on a couple going through the throes of a messy divorce. Boris (Alexi Rozin) is an office worker, whose deeply religious boss is opposed to any kind of marital discord. This means that Boris has to keep his impending break-up a close secret around the workplace. He has already found himself a naïve young girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva), has got her pregnant and is planning to set up a new life with her – but, for the moment, he’s still sharing the family home with his wife, Zhenya (Marian Spivack). Mind you, she’s not blameless in all this, because she too is embroiled in a passionate affair with widower, Anton (Andress Keiss), and is intent on ensnaring the man she sees as her best hope of escape from drudgery. Both Anton and Zhenya are completely focused on their respective futures – so much so that it is all they can think about.
The problem is, they have a 12 year old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who regularly witnesses their bitter arguments and even overhears them trying to fob responsibility for him onto each other. A scene that cuts from a bitter marital dispute to Alyosha – in the darkness of his bedroom, face contorted in an agony of misery – is utterly heartbreaking. Neither Boris nor Zhenya seems to be aware of his unhappiness – indeed, they barely notice him at all, until, inevitably, he goes missing. The resulting search means the two of them have to grudgingly work together alongside the highly motivated volunteer group that has been recruited for the task.
In a Hollywood version of this story, of course, the two protagonists would no doubt develop new respect for each other; they would discover hidden strengths that they never knew existed; they might even end up deciding to stay together. But in Zvyagintsev’s abrasive world-view, there is no redemption. The couple are enslaved by their own mutual loathing and bitter resentment. They go about the search for their son as though it is some kind of thankless chore, an annoying box to be ticked. A visit to Zhenya’s secretive mother on the suspicion that Alyosha may be hiding out with her amply demonstrates that the roots of such selfishness run deep. She too seems unable to exhibit any kind of concern for the missing child, preferring instead to complain about the way she has been treated by her daughter and the man she never wanted her to marry in the first place.
Aloysha’s unseen presence dominates the remainder of the film. It is there in the deserted buildings the search team visit; it is there in the sterile winter landscapes through which they trudge. It would, of course, be wrong to reveal how the search for him turns out, but suffice to say that a brilliantly constructed coda displays all too effectively how hopeless and myopic his parents’ dreams of bright new futures are. In this story, selfishness is all-pervading and parents will always put their own aspirations above those of their off-spring.
A word of warning. This is not the film to watch if you are seeking a cheery and relaxing night at the cinema. If on the other hand, you enjoy a deep, harrowing drama that claws relentlessly at the emotions, it’s certainly one to check out.