Loveless (Nelyubov)

Russia (2017) Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev

One has to wonder if Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is eternally miserable because of the bleak films he makes, or whether Russia really is such a demoralising country that he is simply reflecting this is his works. Let’s hope it is the latter and Zvyagintsev is not just inflicting his pessimism on the rest of us, even if his films are potently engaging.

Loveless opens like most of Zvyagintsev’s other films with a slow and steady stream of picturesque tableaux of snow covered landscape shots, before settling on a high school entrance at the end of the day. Only one boy seems hesitant to go home, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), a 12 year-old whose parents are in the midst of a bitter divorce.

Mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and father Boris (Aleksey Rozin) still share the same apartment which is in the process if being sold but neither can hide their disdain for the other. Two days after Alyosha overhears a horrifying argument, Zhenya discovers her son has not been at home or to school, nor has he been with Boris.

If Loveless was a Hollywood film, the parents would unite in their concern for their missing son, work out their differences and once he is found, everyone lives happily ever after. Spoiler: this is a Zvyagintsev film so usual drama conventions will be subverted and a happy ending is not happening.

Having earned the disapproval of the Russian government with his last film Leviathan, a tale of political corruption, Zvyagintsev was forced to seek financial support from other European film industries to make this one, yet despite its stinging critique of the Russian police, Loveless was still chosen as Russia’s entry for this year’s Foreign Language Oscars. Either Putin has mellowed since 2014 or he missed the cynicism this time round.

The reason why an amiable reconciliation will never happen is because neither parent are particularly nice people showing any evident love towards Alyosha (or Alexey in the UK Blu-ray subtitles). Zhenya treats him like an inconvenience, paying more attention to her phone than her son, whilst father Boris is stressed out with work and his pregnant girlfriend Masha (Marina Vasilyeva).

Zhenya also has a new partner, Anton (Andris Keiss), a wealthy older man with an adult daughter living abroad. It is the night Zhenya spent with Anton that Alyosha disappeared – being the attentive mum she is, she failed to notice her son wasn’t at home, assuming he had gone to school. Naturally, when Boris reads her the riot act for this, Zhenya refuses to accept responsibility and blames Boris for being too busy with work.

Boris is comparably more sympathetic than Zhenya, yet he too is dismissive of Alyohsa, calling him a “squirt” and his disappearance “bad timing”. Making matters worse, both agree that having him was a mistake as Zhenya only used the pregnancy to get away from her harridan mother (Natalia Potapova) (aka “Stalin in a skirt”) which tore that relationship apart.

The moment Alyosha hears his parents arguing unbeknownst to them is one of the most heartbreaking and chilling moments in cinema that will be indelibly etched into your brain. The devastated boy silently cries his heart behind the bathroom door, practically doubling over in agony as his parents argue over who will take him once the apartment is sold, both passing the buck to the other.

Yet, Zvyagintsev’s chosen target in this scathing essay isn’t the vanity and abrogated responsibility of this dysfunctional couple but the Russian police force. He is asserting that modern day police in Russia don’t care about ordinary people and effectively cut from the same self-serving cloth as Putin. Coupled with footage about the annexing of the Ukraine (this is set in 2012) and we can tell Zvyagintsev means business.

A surly cop calmly tells Zhenya that he is understaffed so he will file some paperwork and if after a week Alyosa hasn’t returned – which he is confident will happen – he’ll start proceedings to get someone onto it. Luckily, a volunteer group headed by Ivan (Sergey Dvoinikov), are far more productive although Ivan wryly notes Zhenya’s regular use of “think” instead of “know” about her son’s life, and Boris’ negative language.

Instead of focusing on the suffering of Alyosa, Zvyagintsev stays with the embittered parents and their inability to put their differences aside for the sake of their son. Ambiguity is very much the idea here, since we never know if it is guilt or genuine love than is propelling their search, the fate of Alyosa likely to ruin their image in the divorce hearing and future relationships. It would be nice to think the rare flickers of emotion are from the heart but the characters are far too ingrained in their selfishness to redeem themselves at this late stage.

This is the one area where Zvyagintsev has made a rare misstep – Zhenya and Boris are too uncaring and self-absorbed to feel real. We hear stories of mothers leaving their kids to go off on holiday but unlike Zhenya, they don’t have a refined partner like Anton who would be more principled than let this happen. Boris comes across a little milquetoast at times but not so much that Zhenya’s behaviour would put him off loving his own son.

Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin do their best to overcome this cavil in commanding our attention with strong performances, effective in making us hate them in the right moments but lacking much needed humanity. Again, Matvey Novikov’s show stealing breakdown is an achingly haunting scene so kudos to the youngster for tearing our hearts out so expertly.

Loveless is Zvyagintsev’s most accessible work to date yet retains his trademark casual pacing, stunning photography and dour mood building, still as uncompromising and withering as ever. Getting over the one-dimensional lead characters might be an obstacle for some but not enough that you don’t feel the pain and tragedy of this family unit’s breakdown.