Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev/2017
U.S. Release: March 23, 2018
Submitted as Russia’s official film for the 2018 Oscar race, Andrey Zvyagintsev delivers a powerful and soul-crushing film called Loveless, or Nelyubov, its original title. The film centers around Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), a married couple whose marriage is functionally over. While they live under the same roof, along with their 12-year old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), they are preparing to sell their place, divide the spoils and move out of each other’s lives.
Each has already moved on emotionally and sexually, finding new partners. For Boris life is truly moving forward. His girlfriend is pregnant, and so he is expecting a new child with her, repeating the pattern that he had with Zhenya. In fact, Zhenya is so bitter about having ended up with Boris and keeping the baby that she wanted to abort, that she continues to tell Boris he ruined her life. Caught in the middle of it all is Alyosha, who feels no connection to either parent, and often retreats to his room to avoid being around either of them as they argue about who doesn’t want to take him in the divorce and instead want to send him off to boarding school and then the army.
Following an exceptionally emotional argument between Boris and Zhenya, each decides to go out with their other romantic partners. Zhenya eventually returns to their mutual house, while Boris heads off to work. The next day Zhenya calls to inform Boris that Alyosha hasn’t been at school for two days and that she doesn’t remember seeing him at home either. As self-absorbed as both parents are in their new life, its no wonder they’ve lost track of their son. This begins the search for their son that first goes through the police who believe it is probably a typical runaway case due to the family situation at home. They recommend that Boris and Zhenya contact a group that specializes in finding runaways and children who have disappeared. They do so, but after many searches of buildings, hospitals, and the woods turn up nothing, they must begin to consider that it might be more than just a missing child case, but possibly a kidnapping, or much worse.
The film cleverly utilizes the political backdrop of 2012, the time that this story is set, as a means of defining the culture is driving much of the emotions of the Russian people in this film. This isn’t just a random couple who are fighting, but there is a hopelessness that prevails and permeates every scene. Even their lives with their new partners doesn’t seem that interesting to either Boris or Zhenya. She tells her boyfriend that she loves him, but while she claims to never have loved her husband, we see her words of affection as more of a desire to feel something tangible and real, rather than the words being the result of such corresponding feelings.
Boris knows how to say the right things to get by in his new relationship, but there is also no feelings of attachment behind them. Through his new girlfriend and his estranged wife, we see the “before” and “after” portraits of the pattern of his relationships with women. He says the right things and gives the appearance of sticking around, loving his family, while remaining emotionally distant. The result looking much like his wife’s reaction to him where everyone who once loved him, feels as though he was the lowest human being on earth.
Even during the disappearance, these two people, who begin to work together amicably for the sake of finding their son, are unhappy to their core, and yet extremely focused on themselves. It is quite the contrast to see them among the volunteer search teams members who seem to be putting more emotion into the search for a stranger than these two parents are doing for their own child.
This is much of the reason for the title of the film, Loveless, as it applies not only to the state of this marriage, but the feelings of Alyosha as to how his parents feel towards him, and to a larger extent the state of the Russian people. Television and radio reports about the conflict with the Ukraine constantly are discussed on the nightly news and in the car, as is the state of politics in Russia with Putin, as well as in the United States during the 2012 election between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. These provide the subtext the larger sense of Loveless-ness being felt in each frame of the film.
Andrey Zvyagintsev keeps the tension of the disappearance of Alyosha front and center to create tension and interest in the story for the viewer, while utilizing the bitter relationship and toxicity emanating through every verbal barb and piercing glance of this couple, to create a jarring disruption. Often the verbal barbs, and cutting remarks of Zhenya towards her husband are done in front of innocent onlookers like the couple looking to purchase their home, the police inspector in charge of their son’s case, or even the man in charge of the volunteer group. We feel the awkward tension, and it creates a true empathy towards their poor son. Even if he is found, do we as an audience truly want to subject him further to these two individuals who are his parents?
While the subject matter is difficult, and the tone of the film dark, Loveless is a fantastic story that touches on much more than the story at hand. Russian filmmakers should be proud to have been represented by this entry from Andrey Zvyagintsev, and audiences in the United States will be impacted by it.
Loveless is in Russian with English subtitles and opens at select theaters this Friday.