With his devastating, finely layered new drama Loveless (Nelyubov), Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev once again demonstrates his remarkable gift for creating perfectly formed dramatic microcosms that illustrate the bred-in-the-bone pathologies of Russian society.
Pivoting around an averagely miserable middle-class family of three on the verge of complete dissolution, it’s a more intimate, scaled-down work than the filmmaker's last effort, the rightly acclaimed, far-north-set, anti-corruption tale Leviathan. But like Leviathan, Loveless takes a story about a few broken relationships and builds it up into a parable about many different things: how disconnected people are from each other in a technologically hyper-connected world; how the police and social services systematically fail to protect the most vulnerable, leaving the volunteer sector to scoop up the mess; and how abusive behavior and pain is passed down through generations.
All that and more is right there, weaving in and out of the story along with Mayan predictions of impending apocalypse, Jill Stein’s 2012 run for U.S. president and the Russian media’s propagandistic reporting on Ukraine. And yet, once again, Zvyagintsev’s touch is light as falling snow or horsehair on a violin. Cinephiles will no doubt eagerly tick off parallels with films like Michael Haneke’s Hidden, Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura or Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, which Zvyagintsev himself cites in Loveless’ press notes, but ultimately this is a film that operates on its own unique frequency, albeit one that resonates richly with all of Zvyagintsev’s earlier work, from The Return through to The Banishment and Elena. High-profile sales to upmarket distributors worldwide is a dead certainty, regardless of what happens at the awards ceremony in Cannes this year.
In a non-descript suburb of Moscow, the marriage between beauty-salon owner Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and middle-management desk jockey Boris (Alexey Rozin) is in its death throes. At this stage, they’re long past arguing over who does or doesn’t do the dishes or where it all went wrong. Now they’re onto getting the divorce finalized, selling their jointly owned apartment and looking forward to new lives with new partners — girlish, heavily pregnant sexpot Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) for Boris, wealthy businessman Anton (Andris Keishs) for Zhenya.
The only pesky, completely unresolved matter is what will they do with Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), their 12-year-old son. Neither of them wants custody of him. Indeed, Zhenya, in several shocking speeches throughout that audaciously squelch any potential sympathy from the audience, argues for sending him off to boarding school for the rest of his youth before he joins the army, and notes how she’s never loved him, just as she never loved Boris. In one wrenching shot, it’s revealed that poor Alyosha, weeping behind a door, has heard all of this and more.
Meanwhile, it’s suggested that Boris hasn’t even told Masha, whom he’s half living with in her mother’s apartment, that he has a son. At his job, a company whose business remains evocatively undefined but where icons and church posters decorate every wall, divorce is extremely frowned upon by management. In fact, according to one colleague (Roman Madyanov, the sinister mayor in Leviathan, clowning it up here), someone once hired a woman and two kids to pretend to be his family to disguise his divorced status. Boris clearly fears someone will find out about his first marriage before he gets a chance to pass off Masha and their expected baby as his family.
One morning, Zhenya comes home exhausted after a night of dining in a fancy restaurant (where everyone is either taking selfies or cellphone snaps of their food) and later has passionate sex with Anton. But Alyosha’s teacher calls with worrying news: Alyosha hasn’t been to school in two days.
The brusque but not unkind police officer explains that they simply haven’t the resources to search for Alyosha and recommends Zhenya and Boris contact a volunteer search-and-rescue operation that gets good results, headed by an efficient but judgmental coordinator (Alexey Fateev). While interviewing Boris and Zhenya, the coordinator mercilessly notes every word that betrays how little attention the couple have paid to their son, although tellingly they know all the passwords to his computer and social media accounts.
A search for the missing Alyosha is quickly organized, an effort that ends up taking Zhenya and Boris on a painful road trip to visit Zhenya’s mother on the outskirts of Moscow to see if Alyosha’s there. He’s not, but the encounter reveals exactly from which angry, bitter, emotionally abusive tree Zhenya’s own apples of resentment and hurt fell. Indeed, the film is full of telling near-digressions which go off to watch characters who are not particularly germane to the immediate story, like Masha and her own mother, but whose interactions illuminate the film’s themes.
Likewise, the abandoned buildings in the middle of the nearby forest that the search party scours looking for Alyosha — a Soviet sports club, perhaps, or a decommissioned school — are both just a well-found location and at the same time a set decorated with weather-worn furniture, glass shards and symbolism. As the music growls ominously with long sustained chords — as ever, Zvyagintsev deploys an exquisitely well-balanced mix of original music (by Evgeni Galperin) and modern classical pieces — that empty swimming pool starts to look like a mass grave, but one that could never hold all the runaways of the nation.
Collaborating once again with several of his favorite below-the-line craftspeople, including editor Anna Mass, production designer Andrey Ponkratov and DP Mikhail Krichman, a cinematographer who never met a rain-flecked window he didn’t love, Zvyagintsev maintains the exacting technical standards for which he’s known. His cast, the leads little known outside Russia, submit equally outstanding performances that build beautifully to a harrowing emotional climax in a morgue. Anton observes at one point that no one can survive a life without love, and this astringent, remarkable film proves how true that statement is.
Production companies: Non-Stop Productions, Why Not Productions, Arte France Cinema, Les Films du Fleuve, Fetisoff Illusion
Cast: Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasilyeva, Andris Keishs, Alexey Fateev
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Screenwriter: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Producers: Alexandre Rodnyansky, Serguey Melkumov
Executive producers: Vincent Maraval, Pascal Caucheteux, Gregoire Sorlat
Co-producer: Gleb Fetisov
Director of photography: Mikhail Krichman
Production designer: Andrey Ponkratov
Costume designer: Anna Bartuli
Editor: Anna Mass
Music: Evgeni Galperin