Film, Reviews, Screen

Loveless movie review: a sad, elegant jewel of a film

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A Russian couple are deep in the horror of divorce when their son goes missing from their apartment. This is virtually the entire plot of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Oscar-nominated film – its simplicity defying the intricacies of suspense which I would guess make this the most brutally suspenseful and beautiful film of the year.

Behind a bathroom door in a high-rise apartment in the middle of the night, twelve-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) listens to his parents fighting and opens his mouth wide in a silent scream that articulates a deafening sorrow. This single image of the hidden child in vast, all- encompassing pain, tells you more about the horror afflicting the children of raging parents than any words can. So begins the utterly compelling descent into hell that is Zvyagintsev’s Loveless.

Loveless is devastatingly poignant in its unfolding documentation of how the protection of innocence has been abandoned in a modern world.

The filmmaker showed his ability to dissect family and institutional corruption in his other films, The Return (2004), Elena (2012) and 2014’s Leviathan. But Loveless is devastatingly poignant in its unfolding documentation of how the protection of innocence has been abandoned in a modern world so stressed, it cannot keep hold of humanity.

Alyosha’s parents, the beautiful, brittle Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), who works in the office of a beauty salon and his father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a defeated, exhausted salesman are wrapping up a miserable marriage with the final volleys of vitriol and regret. Their cruelty is unstoppable and uncensored, the last commentary on a union inspired by an accidental pregnancy. Their misery is exacerbated by a surrounding culture disfigured by alienation, religious hypocrisy and self-interest.

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Both have found new partners. For Zhenya, the future looks elegant and comfortable with a well-to-do older man who sees her as a “wonderful monster”, while Boris looks set to repeat the same mistake of his first union with a strategically flirtatious new partner who is heavily pregnant and looking for financial security in partnership with her mother. The problem for both parents is Alyosha, barely viewed as a child, he is more a physical incarnation of their combined lovelessness and weapon of threat and intimidation between them. In this distorted landscape, the threat is that the other will have to keep the child rather than be free of him.

“I never really loved anyone,” Zhenya says  – it’s barely a confession and she dissolves into giggles soon after.

The barbarity of what Alyosha hears – the expression of hopeless, disaffected parenting, their lives suffocated of freedom and happiness, their wrenching disappointment and craven determination to wrestle something from the remainder of time on the planet – sets the scene for his disappearance. Unable to assess the actual conviction behind the threats his parents make and with words like “orphanage” lobbed like grenades into the heart of each other, he has no option but to run.

It’s almost a curated collection of moments from a documentary about love and loss, of how people fall into their lives rather than choose them.

Against the domestic claustrophobia of tiny apartments collecting wintry shadows, are views overlooking bleak urban expanses covered in snow. This unnamed city seems to stand for all cities, the misery of its population standing for the misery of all humanity. Everything in the camera’s eye feels eternal and symbolic: the weather, nature, human aspiration and bitterness. It’s almost a curated collection of moments from a documentary about love and loss, of how people fall into their lives rather than choose them, of how they struggle for control in the face of overwhelming odds. Most beautifully, this is encapsulated by the little boy walking home from school by the snowy river, playing with a random piece of red striped police tape hooked over a tree bough. Alyosha’s entertainment is conjured from the detritus of nature and crime, the same combination his story will surrender to.

When Alyosha’s disappearance gradually segues from a prank to a likely abduction, his parents must recalibrate their entire emotional arsenal. He is no longer there to blame or utilise in their war against each other. Their identities as relentless haters are subsumed into the search for the child, but disaster does not unite them. Alyosha’s disappearance and their involvement with the police in trying to find him is one more chapter in the inevitable journey of ruin and regret they are used to. As viewers, we search for longing, love, guilt but they can barely emerge from the backlog of hatred and despair.

Loveless, which was co-written by Zvyagintsev’s collaborator, Oleg Negin, refuses to give comfort – neither to us, the viewers, nor to his characters in the parents and police. This sense of unity between the story’s protagonists and us, the witnesses, leads to a potent sense of entrapment. We are all in it together, inhabiting the dilapidated shells of once grand buildings, carrying torches, poking in corners, just as Zhenya and Boris now inhabit the wreck of an earlier dream, looking for answers.

Loveless makes Bergman’s savage Scenes from a Marriage seem quaint.

Loveless makes Bergman’s savage Scenes from a Marriage seem quaint. The production design of contemporary (1970s) life leant a kind of bourgeois self-mocking element to the Swedish Johan and Marianne, at least in retrospect. Here, there is no artistic prism declaring itself, commenting on or making this story bearable by allowing us to sit outside it. Zvyagintsev’s gaze seems determined to give the viewer no intellectual or artistic escape, no faith in the police or the parents or the school teachers whose human decency is hijacked by a kind of bleak passivity.

We have no escape, just as the people whose tale he tells have no escape from the seismic horror of their own failures. We are trudging through the snowy forests and the night-time stairwells searching for Aloysha along with both the team of local volunteers, stoic in their determination to leave no stone unturned and the lyrically forensic cinematography of Mikhail Krichman.

A small moment of redemption punctuates the film towards the end. Whether this was the filmmaker relenting for our sake, or for his own, it’s hard to say. This film is so truthful in its observation and so powerfully acted that its acquires a kind of beauty that transcends its pessimism at the same time as realising it. It’s a sad, elegant jewel of a film.

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3 responses to “Loveless movie review: a sad, elegant jewel of a film

  1. Thanks CC, I agree with your 5 star rating. Leviathan didn’t engage me but Loveless is just as you so eloquently describe it. I feel it depicts a desperate and sad universal, personal and political situation beautifully.

  2. I enjoyed Leviathan and looked forward to this. Unfortunately, I found Loveless incredibly boring. If you have read this review you pretty much have the entire plot. Most of the movie just follows the volunteers as they look for the boy, while you know they wont find him. The photography is good and some people might want to watch for this alone.

    1. I think you got this about right Helmut: Ill leave my take:

      As its title suggests this morbid Russian movie claims to be attempting to draw attention to a national crisis – the desperate plight of children who struggle to cope with self-obsessed parents and an uncaring national police dept. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin (both also responsible for ‘Leviathan’ ’14 an equally depressing Russian movie) are again taking a savage swipe at Russian institutional corruption – they’ve used the same format for this, their latest collaboration. The poster advertising suggests this movie will study the impact on the child during a heavy marital separation. Instead, these collaborators spend so much time with perverse voyeuristic scenes of both parents’ extramarital sex lives – leaving the suffering of the poor child, mostly to our imagination (if they were truly serious, perhaps this should have been reversed?) This is just one aspect that tends to put the focus of their movie in mostly the wrong places. Another is its obsessive ‘promo’ style study of a volunteer group of missing-child-hunters who up-stage the indifference of the Russian police. This at times feels to be from another movie, and is the sort of ‘story’ telling best served as a documentary; perhaps even inspiring more social impact than an enacted drama. In the beginning the young lad has one or two strong scenes; but the rest highlights the soulless parents, and simply keeps telling us what we already know, stretched over two long hours.

      The majority of the dialogue has the parents viciously swearing, and being brutally vulgar towards each other in front of their son – when this is not happening (which is not often) we see them constantly obsessing over their mobile phones (a worldwide phenomenon) and being selfishly absorbed. As with Leviathan, these collaborators seem to single out Christians (as if they are the chief perpetrators of these situations) along with the Russian government for its uncaring bureaucracy. Corruption in Government institutions often needs to be exposed but might also be done in a less heavy-handed manner. Cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman sets up stylish images and gives this movie its best asset. The open-ended ending is also a let down with the last shot being a little unbelievable.

      Professional reviewer Emily Yoshida of Vulture.com has been honest enough to call this work out, citing it as, Quote; “A dour film with unlikeable characters and a lack of focus to make a coherent point” (I tend to agree) Otherwise, the usual Awards and accolades proliferate as might be expected in this business of promoting a product.

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