Loveless (Nelyubov in its native Russian), winner of the Jury prize at Cannes and a nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at Sunday’s Academy Awards, is a portrait of a family torn apart. In a drab, nondescript Moscow outskirt, a gruff, full-bodied Boris (Alexey Rozin) and stone-faced Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are in the process of a sour divorce. Trapped in the center of their mutual resentment is twelve year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), the couple’s only child and victim of his parents’ constant, hateful quarrelling.
During a particularly bitter argument, the two parents argue over who has to carry the burden of custody; both parents have moved on with their lives, with their son as but a mere reminder of their past relationship. Expletives are yelled, doors slam, and in what is perhaps one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the year, the camera focuses upon a hidden Alyosha listening painfully, in a fit of silent anguish, tears streaming down his face.
Distracted by new relationships, homes, and as is the case for Boris, a religious fundamentalist boss who may fire him upon learning of the divorce, the parents are selfish and self-absorbed, to say the least. The two are wholly ignorant of the effects their strained relationship has had upon their distraught child. That is, until Alyosha’s school calls: He’s gone missing.
Prior to the disappearance, viewers hear over Boris’s car radio conversation surrounding an apocalyptic Mayan cult prophecy. Doomsday is upon them, especially little Alyosha. For the destruction of a family in the eyes of a child can seem like the end of the world.
In any other movie, the tragedy faced by the parents would bring the two closer together. The two would reconcile, motivated by the sole goal of finding their child. This is not that kind of film.
In addition to director and screenwriter Andrey Zvyagintsev’s careful direction, Loveless‘s bleakness is heightened by Mikhail Krichman’s chilling cinematography. Krichman relies heavily upon natural lighting right from the film’s opening: the camera pans slowly down from concrete-colored skies to showcase a dimly-lit winter landscape, devoid of any signs of life. From the opening shot, Loveless is deeply imbued in a melancholic haze, setting the tone long before the central tragedy unfolds.
Loveless is the latest from celebrated—and controversial—director and screenwriter Andrey Zvyagintsev. The film is Zvyagintsev’s follow-up to the highly publicized Leviathan, a film condemned by foreign officials for its indictment of contemporary Russia, earning Zvyagintsev the name “anti-Putin.” Part satire, part exposé, its biting portrayal of Russian society showcased the country’s corruption within the political realm, venality within religious institutions, anti-Western propaganda and overall culture of intolerance and xenophobia. The film went on to garner major acclaim in America and Europe, picking up a Golden Globe in 2014. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev shifts focus from politics to address more universal subjects: love, family, and more specifically, the lack thereof.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Loveless, however, is Zvyagintsev’s ability to inject such universal themes with the pointed social commentary of his previous works. In a notable scene towards the end of the film, Zhenya runs on a treadmill in the bitter cold while sporting an Olympic tracksuit plastered with letters spelling “RUSSIA.” She’s racing, but to where?
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev elaborated on this contemporary Russian malaise in the following interview from the Cannes Film Festival:
“The film begins in October of 2012, when people were full of hope and were waiting for changes in the political climate, when they thought that the state would listen to them. But 2015 is the climax of their disappointment: The feeling that there is no hope for positive changes, the atmosphere of aggression and the the militarization of society, and the feeling that they are surrounded by enemies.”
Loveless functions effectively as a hard-hitting indie drama with searing social commentary, and affirms Zvyagintsev’s presence as one of the best working directors in foreign language film.