Utter cliché this kind of statement may be, but the cold, empty, snow-covered plains that open Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest immeasurably bleak opus have got nothing on the coldness of the central relationship that they backdrop. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are horrible, horrible, horrible people, even before you lock them into the same room for any length of time and they start verbally tearing each other apart almost on instinct. She is an extremely self-centred, self-obsessed narcissist, almost never seen without her phone in hand complaining about her current life situation and actively contemptuous of damn near everyone else. He is a cowardly, apathetic doormat, sliding through life leaving a trail of chaos, hurt, and destruction in his wake, forever skipping out on the consequences whenever it is most convenient for him to do so, and all without ever once contemplating or acknowledging that this is what he does.
That’s how they both are apart. Put them together, though, and things somehow devolve even further. It takes a little while for Loveless to do so, instead spending much of its opening 15 minutes being almost eerily empty and quiet – Evgueni & Sacha Galperine’s minimal but foreboding score, sparsely used throughout but so effective when it does arrive, setting the tone over the opening titles and effectively serving as a hanging ellipsis until the moment when Boris finally comes home. When he does, the two waste no time in slinging venomous epithets at one another. Or, more accurately, Zhenya does so whilst Boris stands by the kitchen stove utterly exhausted from the moment she starts, his bastardry coming through in the things he’s too cowardly to say out loud, trying to offload custody of their son Aloysha (Matvey Novikov) – the one she never wanted to have and he forced her to keep, only to neglect equally as badly as she does – onto her because he’s worried he might lose his job otherwise.
Oh, yeah, there’s a kid involved, too. Aloysha is a vital component of Loveless, but he’s also effectively non-existent in terms of presence and personality because, well, he is in the lives of his parents. He’s an afterthought, a millstone, one more piece of their failed relationship that they are both desperate to get rid of, along with the flat they all live in, in order to move on with the ostensible ‘new’ lives they’ve already got lined up for themselves. Nowhere is the effect of this callousness more clear than towards the end of that argument – neither parent wanting to battle for custody of him, Zhenya instead planning to ship him off to boarding school under the cruel reductive assessment that “he likes Summer Camp, right?” – when Boris closes a door and we discover Aloysha has been stood behind it the entire time, tears flooding down his cheeks, silently screaming, and still completely unacknowledged by either of his parents. These two are so self-involved, so self-centred, so utterly unconcerned with anybody’s wellbeing other than their own, that they are utterly blind to the tangible consequences of their behaviour staring straight back at them.
When Aloysha disappears the next day, it takes the pair another two to recognise that fact, and even then it’s only because Zhenya gets a call from his school informing her than Aloysha hasn’t been there for the past few days. The search for Aloysha drives the second half of the film, but if you think that a little thing like the unexplained disappearance of their only son is going to force Zhenya and Boris to get over themselves or at least cool it a little bit on the relentless sniping, needling, and cruelty, then you are very sorely mistaken, my friend.
At this point, I know what you are thinking: “Why on earth would I want to watch a movie as oppressively miserable as this sounds?” And that is fair. Loveless is a grim, heavy, and draining work of drama. Even the few fleeting moments of what passes for comedy – a harsh self-aggrandising mother near-enough ducking out of sight from her window to keep up a pretence that she’s not in when Zhenya and Boris show up, the very fact that Boris’ unexplained work makes hiring/firing decisions largely based on the hard-line Christian ideals of its boss, the utter pettiness in behaviour displayed by both parents on an extended car journey – only further underline the cruelty on display by damn-near everyone who shows up in the narrative. It is really not a film for everyone.
Still, though, Loveless is extremely good depressing drama. Part of that is because Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin command the very difficult tightrope of penning their characters as neither people that the viewer is supposed to sympathise with – if you’re ever in doubt of that fact, then the furiously gutting epilogue will ensure you’re on the same page as the film – or hate-sinks to throw rocks at. Rather, they are products of both their own upbringings and modern Russian society at large, of growing social detachment, increased narcissism, and a country refusing to reckon with the consequences of its actions on both its own people and others, whilst it bullishly pushes forward repeating the same mistakes. Boris and Zhenya are both metaphors, in other words; really blunt ones, at that, with a final shot featuring one of them in a sports tracksuit with “RUSSIA” clearly labelled on its front running in place on a treadmill evidently disinterested in their ‘new’ life yet unable to articulate or understand why.
Regardless of its bluntness and moments of didacticism – the film disappointingly undercuts the meticulously-crafted and easily-grasped sense that Zhenya never wanted to be with Boris and couldn’t give a toss about Aloysha built up over the first 40 minutes of film by giving her a monologue explicitly stating these things outright – Loveless still does an admirable job of making its leads also feel like human beings. There is a specificity to their total obliviousness about their own horribleness and ditching this relationship for what they think they need whilst making all of the same mistakes again. Boris has shacked up with a young girl (Marina Vasilyeva) barely out of her teens who utterly adores him and has also gotten pregnant, whilst Zhenya goes for a much older and wealthier man (Andris Keišs) who is, in his own way, just as passive and unconcerned with life as Boris. Both parents trying to get a do-over with ‘improved’ models that do nothing to paper over the hollow pits of their own souls.
Spivak and Rozin are both excellent in their roles, too. Whatever the good opposite of chemistry is, they both have it with each other and the results mean that every scene where they are paired together, which is actually relatively little of the film, crackle with palpable hatred and disdain. I could really get the sense that these are two people so utterly wrong for each other, so filled with narcissistic resentment that they spew contemptuous bile in every direction other than themselves. It really sells every snipe, every loaded passive-aggressive comment, makes them feel like they come from an extended history of trying and failing to stay together for the kid and growing ever more belligerent of that fact. They’re supported by Zvyagintsev’s austere direction, which treads between the meditative and the blunt-force yet always feels cohesive in mood and tone. Credit should also be paid to Mikhail Krichman’s sparse cinematography, always lingering on the empty spaces and ruined edges of Zvyagintsev’s Russia, whether they be dilapidated pool buildings or upper middle-class houses existing on a plain largely separate from everyone else.
I’m not going to mince words. Loveless is a draining, bleak, heavy film that can oftentimes be extremely heavy-handed in its themes and messaging – even if I must admit to much of the specific Russian political messaging, the film being set in 2012 on the eve of apocalypse chatter and with Ukraine constantly in the background, flying right over my head due to not being well informed about the status of either country. It is really not for everyone. But I cannot deny the emotional impact that I had watching it, particularly the eventual resolution that aims for tragedy in far different and more emotionally complex ways than one may expect. One particular shot, an erasure happening in real time, was haunting to witness.
Loveless is difficult, but it has a lot to chew on and, thanks to assured hands by Zvyagintsev, never even threatens to become a chore to get through. The results are frequently wrenching and utterly engrossing.
Loveless will be available to buy via Digital Download on June 4th, and on DVD & Blu-Ray on June 11th.