Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvei Novikov
Loveless begins with the eerie “11 Cycles of E” during the studio credits. Before we even glimpse into director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s world we get a taste of the dread in what’s to come. Then after beautifully composed stills of a frigid 2012 Leningrad, we see young Alyosha (played surprisingly well by Matvei Novikov) throw a strip of police tape onto a tree branch, where it flows freely in the wind. This tape is the only thing with any essence of freedom in Loveless, the latest tragedy from the Russian visionary. I doubt I’ve seen such a dreadful film since Klimov’s Come and See, in a tearful family drama reminiscent of a classic Bergman film.
The central family live up to the feeling of the film’s title; Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) make no attempts to guise their spite toward one another, nor their disinterest in their only son. They’ve both taken new lovers, and consider sending Alyosha off elsewhere when their divorce is finalized. Sure, they never fight directly in front of him, but don’t even bother to lower their voices when they think he’s sleeping in the next room. This is a modern couple in the worst of ways. She is constantly glued to her phone, he is more interested in his career life than his home life, and they both move on from each other without missing a beat.
Then, as if by some cosmic force, one morning when returning from her lover’s home, Zhenya finds that Alyosha has vanished. In the last moments we see of him, he seems very intent on leaving, but there’s no distinct evidence that points to him being a runaway. This causes the two to reunite, much to their disdain, to help find the boy. As the plot and characters unfold, its impossible to not be fixated on the performance and directorial subtleties.
Is this a meditation on modern dispassion, a comment on the paralleling 2012 apocalyptic theories, or something more political? At this point in Zvyagintsev’s career, we can trust him enough to assume any one of these possibilities, or even all of them at once. But even on a surface level, there’s a lot to chew on in regards to acting and filmmaking. Spivak’s Zhenya is a woman who wields a sharp tongue at every opportunity and Boris constantly carries a solemn and sad quietude, beaten down by the path he’s been set on. There are multiple long takes of character-based sequences, including one where a tearful Alyosha listens from the bathroom as his parents argue, and another where Boris secretly talks to a coworker about his fears of his disintegrating marriage causing his career to go down with it. We also get long sequences of both Zhenya and Boris in intimate moments with each of their respective lovers, and see them having long talks about their futures and their pasts, fleshing them out and making their dialogue recitations all the more impressive. These are not bad people, and anyone could find themselves in their shoes. But who they are to the outer world is petty and despicable, maybe even irredeemable.
There are many photogenic but distant shots of the outer world of the snowy cities and suburbs of Leningrad, showing that freedom is always from a distance. It is not the fact that Alyosha has disappeared; its how the world reacts to it—so detached and uncaring. They seek him out as a form of duty, not desire. The couple make it more about them then about their son. No matter who’s face is on the poster of Loveless, it was never about anything other than their them. Zhenya and Boris are over at the time of the film’s beginning, and although Alyosha never made any impact on them with his presence, his absence may be their permanent undoing as free individuals.