The title of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film could possibly refer to two things; the country that he so adoringly yet fatalistically photographs as a backdrop to the powerful story he wants to tell or the family dynamic at the heart of the narrative, a completely downbeat and harrowing example of human selfishness. Either way, this festival darling certainly lives up to its name and slowly sketches a very bleak and uncompromising view of a Russia where humanity is still obviously present but seems to be buried under three feet of snow and ice. Politically, it is a fascinating piece of work but emotionally it is devastating and Zvyagintsev seems to know this, having the patience to paint a charmless family portrait that holds up a mirror but offers no direct solutions.
Opening with a series of striking landscape shots filled with the pure white of winter, the fractals of tree branches permeating every frame, Loveless sets out its stock quickly and efficiently. This environment is not welcoming and even the schoolchildren seem as though they are rushing home to escape the frigid air. The pale and tired face of twelve-year-old Alexey seems to be a product of his environment and we soon find he is trapped in a home that doesn’t want him, his mother and father constantly bickering as they stumble their way through a messy divorce. Early on we watch, helpless, as he overhears his parents argue over who must take him and his heartbroken, silent crying in his room is enough to convince us that he needs to leave. In the few scenes that child actor Matvey Novikov gets to sell the total loss of hope that Alexey is suffering from, he absolutely succeeds and we carry it with us for the rest of the running time.
It is here where the film shifts into a new pace, an unhurried tour through the lives of Zhenya and Boris, Alexey’s self-centred and blindingly unhappy parents, as they navigate their way around a Russia where honesty is becoming increasingly more difficult to unearth. Boris discusses the effects that his divorce might have on his career with his co-worker, a conversation which would be humorous if it weren’t so pathetic, whilst Zhenya (played with delightful bile by Maryana Spivak) smiles and sways through her job in cosmetics before heading to dinner with her new lover, a distinguished and kind man who feels worlds away from her husband. The film plays the neat trick of drawing you into the lives of these often repulsive but somehow increasingly human figures and you almost forget about Alexey until it is too late. With both parents having spent the night away from home, almost two days go by before anyone notices he has gone.
From here on out, anxiety and panic permeate every inch of the film. The interiors of the workplace, the home and the salon give way to the extreme conditions of icy nature and abandoned, hollowed out buildings. The slight satire of Zhenya and others glued to their phones, addicted to selfies, seems like a world away and the mother and father who once hoped their disappointing child would vanish now have their wish. What Zvyagintsev accomplishes though, as the embittered duo frantically join forces to find their son, is not to smugly sit back and pronounce, “Be careful what you wish for” but to showcase the desperation and raw humanity that exists in those who have previously shown no remorse. Loveless may be a film that aches and strains under the weight of social apathy but it certainly is not judgemental of its subjects, seemingly more interested in being a remorseful rumination on the trappings of unconditional love.
Zvyagintsev has refused to label the film as a completely pessimistic one though. The bureaucratic nonsense that inhibits Boris from divorcing his wife immediately or prevents the police from actually providing assistance in searching for Alexey is overshadowed by the herculean efforts of a volunteer group who have a history of finding runaway children. Much can be gleamed from the fact that the rescue effort, followed in minute detail by Mikhail Krichman’s gliding camerawork and increasingly otherworldly imagery, is the strongest portion of the film. Simultaneously hopeful and despairing, the stunning, oppressive apartment buildings are made alien by fog and sleet but still each apartment stairway is searched and every wall is adorned with Alexey’s round, pale face. There is an almost sanguine element to the film’s final stages and it we begin to uncover, through all the slush, mud and darkness, the question that Zvyagintsev may be trying to pose – would a loveless world also be a happy one?
Lovess will be released by Altitude into UK theatres on February 9 2018.