After four films, including the brilliant Cannes 2014 title “Leviathan,” we are almost prepared for the crystalline perfection of Russian genius Andrey Zvyagintsev‘s style. The long takes that end in razor-fine, lacerating edits. The frames composed like sculptural studies in decay and dereliction. The rancorous exchanges acidic enough that a carelessly dropped word could burn through the floor to the apartment below. And we even expected his bitterness, his allegorically politicized critique of Russian society, its corruption and cruelty. But nothing could have truly prepared us for the apocalyptic despair of “Loveless,” perhaps his most brilliant, but also most profoundly pessimistic film to date that, couched in such viscerally intelligent, skillful filmmaking, may also be his most persuasive. This is the downer as an art form, a feelbad film of gargantuan reach and effect, and a brave, horrified commentary on a whole nation. It would be a dissection if the subject were dead, but the thrillingly current “Loveless” operates on its imploding family and the state it stands for while they are still alive. It is a vivisection.
Nominally a drama, the film is really a horror movie, as established by an early scene in which the Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), the wildly estranged parents of 12-year-old Alyosha have an argument of practiced vitriol over which of them will take their son when the divorce comes through. The hideousness comes in the realization that neither of them wants the boy — indeed neither of them even seems to like him — and after Zhenya takes a break from the escalating shouting match to go to the bathroom, the glass-paned door swings closed behind her. Alyosha has been standing there the whole time, unseen by the two of them, and has heard everything. His mouth is wide and ugly, his sobs are stifled but uncontrollable. It’s possible that the horror that is a child who isn’t crying for attention, but in shame and pain, alone, has never been more powerfully depicted. This is an image — one of many — that lodges like a splinter of ice in your spine, and the film only grows colder from there.
Zhenya and Boris are both involved with other people. Boris has a pretty, heavily pregnant girlfriend, Zhenya an older, materially successful lover, and each of them are shown having intimate conversations and graphic sex with their new significant others. Boris is also obsessively career-focused, worried how his divorce will go over with a fundamentalist Christian boss. Zhenya, who runs a beauty salon, is forever on her phone, scrolling, snapping selfies, posting pictures of her food. She tells her new man that she was repulsed by the newborn Alyosha and unseriously suggests “I’m a monster, aren’t I?” And for all the accepted wisdom that a filmmaker shouldn’t judge his characters, here we’re far beyond such niceties. Whatever her historical reasons for being this way, there is indeed something almost feral in her self-pity, like she’s a vicious animal with an ego.
The tenor of their mutual self-involvement changes abruptly when Alyosha disappears. The authorities prove of little use and so the fractious couple enlist a well-organised local volunteer group who specialize in finding runaways (imagine, for a second, how wrong a society has to go in order to make such a thing necessary). This impersonal, undifferentiated mini-militia, with their high-vis jackets and walkie-talkie codes, are the village that goes to find a child, when the village it takes to raise one fails in its duty.
There is no way to do the film justice while also selling it as an appealing way to spend two devastating hours. But Zvyaginstev’s skill as a filmmaker is such that as discomfiting as it is, it’s deeply compelling and immersive. And it’s not just that regular DP Mikhail Krichman‘s framing is breathtaking, whether in wide outdoor vistas, crumbling dank interiors, or skeletal, snowladen trees reminiscent of the bleached bones of the whale carcass in “Leviathan.” It’s the mysterious sureness of the offbeat directorial choices Zvyaginstev makes, accompanied by Evgeny Galperin‘s terrific score, with its unearthly crescendoing piano chord motif. Often, within a continuous shot, the light will grow almost imperceptibly dimmer and the colors flatten ever so slightly. At other times, he lingers on a secondary character in such a way that new avenues of possibility, of intrigue and dread, branch off the main story. Why do we see the teacher clean her blackboard off after everybody has left the room? Why does the camera pan a fraction to follow an unknown man walking down a snowy path? What is the real truth of the film’s complex climax, a truth that exists just below the bottom of the frame? These moments exist like slivers of bamboo beneath your nails, they torture you with what they might mean.
There is a “Stalker“-esque, almost science fiction vibe to these ambiguities, especially amid the film’s annihilated landscapes, but “Loveless” unfolds in the recent past, not the near future. Early on, a car radio burbles about the Mayan prediction of the end of the world, and by its close the television squawks about the (more or less current) situation in Ukraine. In a film of such control, these news reports feel exceptionally unsubtle, but that, too, is part of the point. Like many horror movies, “Loveless” is fed by rage, and these deceptive scenes are where Zvyagintsev lets his mask of formal precision slip just enough for us to glimpse the rictus of righteous, messy anger beneath.
Indeed, once you lever open the story’s allegorical potential the underlying fury spills out everywhere: Zhenya is a woman who scorned and neglected her child to the point of complete abandonment and only started to want him back (abstractly, and without real feeling) when he was gone. This black view of loveless, hate-fuelled, self-interested motherhood becomes virulently political in one direct image of Zhenya, jogging robotically on a treadmill wearing an Olympic team tracksuit, with “Russia” emblazoned across the chest.” In “Loveless,” she is the mother and she is Russia, and Mother Russia is a monster. [A]