Andrey Zvyagintsev, an undeniable talent, is one of the cinema’s great pessimists.
His 2014 epic Leviathan retold the story of Job – the Bible’s most unforgiving tale – through Kolya, a hot head mechanic facing oppressive small-town corruption which twisted his life into further tragedy the more he tried to fight it. 2011’s Elena gave us a Moscow realised as a very literal concrete jungle, one where extreme social divisions resulted in brawling class warfare that poured out on the streets.
It is his latest film however, the masterful and now Oscar nominated Loveless, that might just be his most cynical offering yet. In it, Zvyagintsev dares to suggest that not only does there exist toxically self-centred, woefully unfit parents but also that there is no hope of true accountability for such a couple. On the verge of divorce, Boris and Zhenya are both deeply involved in extramarital affairs. Consistently and irredeemably cruel with each other, they are regularly having throat-rattling, verbal spats that are so close to the bone the dog must have chewed on it. Boris is a sizeable man, spineless and spiteful in equal measure while Zhenya is vain, vicious and cares more for what’s happening on the screen of her phone then she does in her son’s life.
The resentment that both Boris and Zhenya hold for their 12-year-old Alexey borders on abuse, but as they’re never shown beating or even vociferating the young boy, it’s unlikely that any state could get him out of their guardianship. Make no mistake, these people should not be parents and Zvyagintsev makes this clear in one devastating shot. In an early, particularly savage bickering session between our putrid protagonists, the two trade barbs and attempt to pass off responsibility for the child before the separation is final. While in the middle of callously questioning if their son is more in need of a mother or a father, Zhenya makes use of the bathroom and in a gruelling pan, it’s revealed that a silently blubbering Alexey has been sitting in the corner, presumably listening in the whole time.
It’s that same shot that probably kickstarts the plot. While it’s kept vague as to why, Alexey suddenly goes missing with viewers assuming he’s ran away – not that anyone would blame him. The apparent departure occurred while both parents were with their respective lovers and par for the course, Boris and Zhenya only become aware of their son’s disappearance after the school informed them he has been missing from classes. Alexey may end up an absent figure for much of the runtime, but his absence leaves behind it an omnipresent, haunting atmosphere that hangs over the film. Like a Dickensian apparition, he speaks to the unchecked guilt of not only the people who supposed to care for him, but also of the state itself.
While it’s less to the fore than in previous Zvyaginetsev outings, the director’s sardonic state of the nation addresses are there if you look for them. The hypocrisy of the feigned liberalism of post-USSR Russia is exposed in a lunchroom conversation between Boris and a colleague. Their boss is fundamentalist Christian and won’t stand for having employees who aren’t living the happily married, nuclear lifestyle. Stressing he’s not planning to separate with Zhenya, Boris inquires tentatively on what would happen if someone working there was to divorce and his co-worker tells him of a person he knew – mostly likely himself – who hired fake families to attend the office Christmas party to keep up the ruse. Lucky for Boris, his other girlfriend happens to be pregnant and if you can remarry fast enough, his employer will be none the wiser. The scene has an absurdist sense of Orwellian mundanity about it, with each player fully aware of the other’s transgressions but never daring to make that fact explicit.
As for the police, they don’t fare much better. Working on the assumptions that Alexey has simply fled home on his own accord, the detective working on the case barely lifts a finger and instead recommends that Zhenya use a volunteer organisation who specialise in search in rescue – in Putin’s Russia, people find their own missing children. The citizen’s group is led and personified by the worldly, determined Anton, one of the film’s few semblances of human decency. It’s only Anton and those he works with who seem sincerely concerned for Alexey’s wellbeing.
The themes and characters the film explores may be brutal but the shot composition sure isn’t. As if to counteract the cold-blooded savagery of the people who inhabit this world, the imagery found in Loveless is nothing short of exquisite. Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman turn the urban sprawl of Moscow into sumptuous nocturnal snapshots of city life. The desolation and overgrowth found at a former Soviet Bloc building, a Skeleton of the country’s communist past (and reminder of its authoritarian present), supplies some examples of the most picturesque looks at post-human life seen in cinema since Tarkovsky.
The main point being made by Loveless is a simple but blunt one: humanity is selfish and that selfishness is enabled by societies. It’s only in a late scene when Boris and Zhenya are made to confront the potential fatal consequences of their behaviour do they show anything close to empathy for the plight of their son. It’s a miracle that something this acerbic in tone is so masterfully made and watchable. Zvyagintsev has made a film about unforgivable people you couldn’t stand in an elevator with, and somehow he has made it essential that you spend over 2 hours with them.