Film Review: Loveless Is a Masterpiece of Brutal Realism and Observant Drama

on February 28, 2018, 2:29pm

No child should ever know that they are unwanted, or unloved. But it’s presumptuous to assume that all children are the products of loving unions. Families can fail pretty easily. There are just accidents: economic misfortunes, lacking resources, simple bad timing. Yet even in the most dire circumstances, one still believes that every child is wanted, however greatly or mildly.

But this one boy, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), knows he’s not wanted. He knows it loud and clear. He heard his parents say so.

Alyosha’s mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is a social climber, eternally attached to her phone. She loves lavish dinners, spa days, and other selfie-friendly activities. She can barely be bothered to look at her son; she’s too busy posting online. Alyosha cries over breakfast, after hearing her all but refuse to keep him during a phone call. Alyosha’s mother is trying to get divorced from his father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), and Zhenya can only be bothered to angrily ask “are you sick?” to Alyosha in the moment. And Boris isn’t giving Alyosha much either. Boris has a cowardly sort of presence, disinterested in anything but saving his own skin. He’s passive-aggressively trying to weasel out of parenting Alyosha, for he has a new family in the works. Zehnya has a prospective beau as well.

Alyosha’s parents are seeking a divorce in contemporary Russia. It doesn’t come easy, especially given Boris’ Catholic work environment (the bearded, shadowy boss requires that all employees be married). Neither are willing to actually work to resolve anything. Zhenya and Boris are cruel, and utterly incompatible. Alyosha should have been sent to an orphanage, but that’s not pious. Maybe he’ll like boarding school, pricey as it is. “Triumph of the ombudsman,” Alyosha’s mother snarls on a rare break from her phone.

“I’ve fucking had it with you!” Boris curtly whines.

“Scumbag!” Zhenya shouts in reply.

And just like that, their dreams come true. Alyosha vanishes.

Prepare to be saddened and shaken, but deeply moved as well. From Andrey Zvyagintsev, the gifted Russian director of human epics like Leviathan and The Return comes Loveless, a wistful and hauntingly memorable tale of life lost, and worse yet, life never cared about at all. It’s a harrowing moral fable, a political fable, and above all, a deft lament. Now arriving stateside after debuting at Cannes last summer (with an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film in tow), Zvyagintsev has crafted another can’t-miss portrait of apathy, the banality and ease of meanness, and a plaint on the Russian state’s loveless people, as it were. It’s a film of spindly tree branches, drizzled and icy windows, snow on dirty ground, and empty-feeling structures, with lonely lights at night (aided superlatively by Leviathan DP Mikhail Krechman). But the emotional core of this new classic is the deterioration of the family.

Alyosha’s an average, albeit lonely, 12-year-old. When introduced, he’s carelessly strolling through the woods, playing with found police tape. This wandering becomes clear – he’s avoiding going home. His parents’ pending divorce is the result of a toxic marriage in a culture largely unforgiving of separations. Zvyagintsev pulls zero punches in his characterizations, cleanly articulating what’s wrong with everyone through image, action, and curt words. These people would never admit they’re scared or unhappy, but they aren’t shy about expressing anger or frustration – in a tight-lipped key, of course.

One night, during a particularly brutal tiff between Boris and Zhenya, the camera pans left as Zhenya leaves her bathroom and slams a door shut. Immediately, it’s revealed that Alyosha was behind that door, sobbing painfully and quietly. We know he’s doomed, and Zvyagintsev masterfully sets the stage and circumstances. Alyosha is only fully accepted as gone after Zhenya and Boris are seen embracing their new lives at length. Zhenya gets an extended date, with photogenic dinners, performative love-making, and admissions of apathy from her mother. She wants a new life. Boris has a younger, sweet and admittedly naïve new wife-to-be, who’s also pregnant. Perhaps the age difference explains why he gets away with being so cagey in speaking about his former life.

Zhenya’s first instinct is to call Boris. She only notices that her son is gone after a day and a half. Boris naturally can’t help. He’s at work: his truest love. The police can’t do much beyond take a few Polaroids of the boy’s room, and suggest to Zhenya that she and Boris wait it out. A particularly hardened officer suggests that the little dolt (his words) is just hiding in a mall or whatever, and that he’s just being honest. Zhenya’s mother lays on the old-school guilt. After Alyosha’s parents drive great lengths to see her and see if the boy’s in hiding with her, not only is he not, but she reprises them about the futility of their marriage. The search turns from days, to months, to inevitable years. The grief intensifies, and doubt pervades.

Loveless is plaintive, framed to constantly remind us of these characters’ isolation. This family is seen against vanity windows, in repetitive office spaces, and lost among the branches of a frigid and empty Russia. Alyosha doesn’t play with other kids; he’s utterly alone with the Russian skyline. Zhenya is so concerned with looks and presentation that standing nude in front the window after love-making feels less meditative than presentational. And Boris is the most head-down working man imaginable, scared to make even the slightest effort beyond his sustainable routine. Zvyagintsev pitches Loveless at a crisp, clean Euro-art-house vantage (sharply contrasted lines, excruciatingly long shots, and a willingness to push the dark). Lenser Mikhail Krechman has a knack for the director’s patient gaze, and the helmer works a moralistic, open-ended approach.

Zvyagintsev works in the vein of Bergman, Field, and Farhadi; this is a thoughtful drama of the domestic and the state, allowing for actual reflection and thought. If this rings of a series of escalating anxieties, well, yes. Be prepared. The plot itself is a long road of loss, as Alyosha vanishes, only for his parents to scramble, search, blame, and search some more. Zvyagintsev protracts the vanishing with one curious, saddening inquiry or episode after the next, demonstrating a knack for realistically inactive behavior. In his world, no one’s M.O. is to soothe or express worry, but rather to point a finger (or just scream). It often leaves the viewer at a loss, exhausted and fascinated by such anger, and it acts to provoke – surely this boy has to be found, in spite of such terrible odds.

But maybe this child is lost. Maybe the conditions were too hostile for him to be found. Or maybe he doesn’t want to be found.