Quite moody and chilly right from its opening scene, Russian film “Loveless” calmly observes the end of one bitter marital relationship. Here are two people who probably should not have been together from the very beginning, and the anger and resentment between them become more intensified when they are stuck by a sudden terrible incident. Mainly due to its austere and clinical storytelling approach which will remind you of the works of Ingmar Bergman, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Michael Haneke, the movie is a rather tough stuff to watch on the whole, but it gradually grabs our attention through its palpably bleak atmosphere and stark realism, and it is interesting to watch how the movie subtly works as an indirect critique of the Russian society.
After the opening scene which shows several wintry sights, the movie introduces us to a young boy named Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), and we soon observe his loveless domestic environment. His parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are recently divorced, and they have no regret about that because, well, they have been sick of each other for years. Once their apartment where only Zhenya and their son reside at present is sold, they will be completely separated from each other, and both of them surely want that to happen as soon as possible.
However, their apartment is still not sold yet, and that surely makes Zhenya and Boris more resentful to each other. As they viciously argue with each other at one point, the movie strikes us with a modest but memorable shot which reminds us again of how much Alyosha feels sad and lonely while not particularly wanted or loved by his parents. As mentioned later in the movie, he was never wanted even when he was conceived, and neither Zhenya nor Boris wants to live with him just because they are mostly occupied with starting their respective life again.
The first half of the movie pays some attention to how much Zhenya and Boris have been separated from each other. Boris has a girlfriend who is already pregnant with their child, and they virtually look like a married couple when they are shopping together. Because the head of a technology company where Boris works is an ultra-conservative guy who does not like divorce much, Boris must hide his divorce from everyone in the company, and one of his colleagues tells a rather amusing story about how one employee managed to hide his divorce when he had to bring his family to an annual company party.
In case of Zhenya, she has been in the relationship with some affluent guy, and he surely looks like a far better alternative compared to her ex-husband. Besides being usually nice to her, this guy has a slick, expensive modern house where they often sleep together comfortably, and he also takes her to a posh restaurant. For Zhenya, this relationship means a chance for not only real love but also social upgrade, and she is certainly determined not to lose this guy.
After carefully establishing its main characters’ positions during its first half, the screenplay by director Andrey Zvyagintsev and his co-writer Oleg Negin starts its second half with a sudden happening. On one day, Alyosha is suddenly disappeared without any trace, and Zhenya and Boris find themselves in a very frustrating situation. A detective says that there is nothing much he and his colleagues do about this incident because there is not any clue to help them and they are also busy with many other cases to be handled, and he recommends that they should instead get some help from a group of volunteers dedicated to finding missing persons. While those volunteers are willing to help Zhenya and Boris as much as they can, their wide search around the neighborhood does not lead to anything substantial, and Zhenya and Boris become more nervous as time goes by.
However, their shared nervousness does not make them nicer or closer to each other at all, and it actually makes them more spiteful to each other than before. When Zhenya and Boris come to the residence of Zhenya’s mother just in case, Zhenya’s mother, a cranky old lady who deserves to be called ‘Stalin in a skirt’, cruelly reminds them of how loveless their relationship has been for many years, and that causes another angry argument between them.
In the meantime, the search for Alyosha goes on and on without any particular process, and Zvyagintsev and his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who previously worked with Zvyagintsev in “The Return” (2003) and “Leviathan” (2014), provide a number of striking visual moments which are filled with an unnerving sense of barren emptiness. In case of the scene which shows Boris and other people looking around here and there in an abandoned decrepit building, the gloomy hollow mood surrounding them is accentuated further by harsh lighting and desaturated color palette, and that will probably remind you of those unforgettable moments of ambiguous emptiness in Antonioni’s notable works such as “L’Avventura” (1960).
As he did in “Leviathan”, Zvyagintsev often makes sharp points on the social matters of the Russian society through his moody drama, and the depiction of the Russian society in his film is not very pretty to say the least. His main characters’ misery and unhappiness come to feel more like a symptom reflecting their glum, uncaring society, and that is backhandedly emphasized more by the last scene of the movie, where its characters phlegmatically watch the news about the conflict in Ukraine without much concern.
Like Zvyagintsev’s previous films, “Loveless”, which received the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival in last year and recently garnered a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, is not a pleasant experience at all, but I admire it a lot for its distinctive visual impression as well as its restrained but ultimately impactful drama. Although this is indeed your typical arthouse film, it is a very good one nonetheless, so I recommend you to give it a chance with some patience.