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.
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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