Andrei Zvyagintsev recently told The Guardian that ‘living in Russia is like being in a minefield’. If his latest film is any reflection of reality, then it’s safe to say that he was putting it mildly.
Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are not in a happy marriage. Both already have new sexual partners, and languish in their cold shared flat waiting for the particulars of divorce to set them free from the shackles that bind them. Of more contention is their son – Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Depending on your reading of the subtext, he’s both the cause of their marriage and the cause of the divorce, or just a resentful byproduct of a failing relationship. Undoubtedly neither parent wants him. A particular scene, in which they discuss putting him into care, with more than a hint of sadistic glee – only for Zvyagintsev to reveal that he’s standing just round the corner, face frozen, slick with tears in open-mouthed horror – is one of the most distressing things you’re likely to see for a while.
One morning, when Zhenya goes to wake her son, she discovers a terrible fact: he’s missing. Not just missing but vanished into thin air. Now she must navigate into the void of loss with a husband she doesn’t love, in a country whose infrastructure seems constructed around evasion and apathy. Will the pair find their boy? And, more importantly, do they want to?
The crux of Loveless would appear to be its title. At first, you might conclude that it refers to the vacuum of passion between Boris and Zhenya. But, then, as the missing child story comes into focus, it seems to refer to the lack of affection Alyosha’s parents have for him – and how their neglect led to his disappearance. Yet, even this interpretation doesn’t stick around for long. The apathetic police, the standoffish search-and-rescue teams, the oppressive bosses, the spectre of religion, and the office vigilantes all begin to add up to a three-dimensional tapestry of an unhealthy society. Zvyagintsev’s film is not about Russia, it is Russia. Here, he appears to be saying, is a country and culture possessed of such indifferent malice that it can swallow up a young pearl of innocence.
It’s a hard piece of work to watch: at times unbearably sad, and often hopeless. There are hints that Alyosha’s ordeal is hardly unique: mangled corpses of children show up in hospitals across the area – inconsequential, mutilated reminders of societal oppression and neglect. But, if Zvyagintsev is being honest with us, then it’s a necessary piece of work which begs for cultural change.
Loveless is a dark, eerie, and tragic piece of work operating under a total eclipse of positivity. There’s nothing to enjoy here, and very little to say when the credits roll – but therein lies its power. It’s a masterfully made portrait of sorrow – a horrific depiction of life in an oppressive culture and an elegy for the things that make us human. It’ll be opening in a niche market – few wans to pay money to feel this shit – but if you do decide to catch it, its elemental force is seriously impressive.
Featured image: The Upcoming.