Ice cold Russian drama
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev continues his dissection of Russian society and its shortcomings at this year’s LFF. His previous feature, Leviathan, was an acerbic indictment of political corruption at all levels and won the festival’s Best Film award in 2014. His new offering, Loveless, takes on a different aspect of contemporary life in his home country, but one that’s even more chilling in its implications.
It opens with a lingering, ice cold scene – leafless trees covered with snow, snow on the ground – although it’s not quite cold enough for the small lake to freeze over. What looks like a rural setting turns out to be just a small patch of woodland nearly on the doorstep of blocks of urban flats. And the lengthy, near-silent shot sets the tone for the entire film.
Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya’s (Maryana Spivak) marriage has broken down. They want to move on and be with their new partners – his girlfriend heavily pregnant – but they have to carry on sharing their apartment until it’s sold. They have a 12 year old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), but their preoccupation with hating each other makes them oblivious of the effect it has on the boy. Worse still, neither of them seem to care about him or want to have custody of him when they part. Then one day he disappears and they find themselves having to work with the police and local volunteers to try to find them.
It’s a portrait of emotional neglect, on a personal and national level. The feuding parents are unaware for two days that their son has disappeared and only find out when his school contact them asking why he’s been absent. Until that moment, they haven’t even looked inside his bedroom, assuming he was just looking after himself. As usual. But on a larger scale, the lovelessness of post-modern Russia is also on display, all selfies and escorts. Zvyagintsev shows how deep it runs with everyday vignettes: the teacher cleaning the blackboard as snow falls outside, and the man at the bus stop who stops for a second to look at the flyer appealing for information on the missing boy. Then he, and life, carries on. Unmoved and unaffected.
It’s a country that’s repeating the same mistakes over and over again. As, indeed, are the couple. After their separation and the arrival of Boris’s latest baby, we see he has no patience with the little boy, dumping him in his playpen when he makes too much noise and leaving him crying. We can only assume that Alyosha was on the receiving end of much the same treatment. Yet both parents crave love, if not from each other then certainly from their new partners. Yet their declarations of love ring hollow, especially when we hear Zhenya’s description of how she became pregnant with Alyosha and constantly describes the boy as “it.” No name, no gender. Neither parent is equipped to deal with love in anyway and the confrontation between Zhenya and her monstrous mother is a telling moment.
The parents, the boy and the entire country are all loveless in this powerful, cold-eyed look at emotional detachment and its consequences. It doesn’t quite have the subtlety of Leviathan, but it leaves you in no doubt as to its message. On the basis of this, Zvyagintsev’s next project cannot come soon enough.
Loveless is screened at the London Film Festival on 6th and 8th October, and released in cinemas on 10 November.