Watching Loveless is an often strenuous affair, though, like most strenuous activities, it’s not without its rewards. Presented as a simple thriller, the film uses its conceit to explore deep-seated issues of politics and psychology, often so subtly that you never realize it’s happening.
That’s no huge surprise considering the works of Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (who also co-wrote the script with his frequent collaborator, Oleg Negin). As a filmmaker, Zvyagintsev has often laced his works with political subtext, using his narratives as quiet explorations of existential dread in modern Russia. Loveless, however, is slightly more overt in its aims than his previous efforts and should lay waste to any doubts about the director’s prowess as a storyteller.
Loveless is a film rich in pathos, and it might be a tough sell for American audiences. The stark realities of Russia ooze from every frame as Zvyagintsev uses his talents as a critique of modern Russian culture and the disillusionment of its people. It’s an overwhelmingly bleak, fascinating film that offers no solutions to the problems it portrays.
Loveless follows the bitter dissolution of the marriage between Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin). With their divorce all but a done deal, both former partners have moved on to new lovers and are attempting to build their new lives. Still, their constant, bitter fighting proves too much for their young son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) who runs away one night after a particularly brutal argument. Now, with their son missing, Zhenya and Boris must try to put aside their differences and disputes in order to bring him home.
As far as relationships go, Zhenya and Boris’s is as cold and unforgiven as a Siberian winter. Spivak and Rozin do a fantastic job at portraying the delicate imbalance of lovelessness, and the simmering hatred between the two is perfectly palpable. While we’re never exactly clued in about what went wrong between them, they seem to wear the weight of all society’s ills on their shoulders. They are a microcosm of societal cracks, representing the erosion of family and the general decline of love in the modern era.
Zvyagintsev uses this couples breakup as a window into the minds of modern Russians. Between their tension is a gulf between past and present, representative of the fears held as Russia finds itself taking a new place among the world powers. Their new dynamic takes on an added weight here, as they have to learn to navigate the dense bureaucracy of policework to make any headway in finding their son.
As a thriller, Loveless is taut and terrifying, perfectly showcasing what every parent fears most in a frighteningly tangible way. Zvyagintsev is never overt in this aspect of the film, choosing instead to underplay the suspense, which has the unique effect of making it more suspenseful. The mystery, in a sense, isn’t “what happened to Alyosha” but, rather, “what has happened to us.” The family and their dynamics, then, is a cog in Zvyagintsev’s twisted machinery of brutal critique.
There isn’t a hint of happiness to be found anyway in Loveless; it’s a film that maintains a steady buzz of discontent from its first moments to its last in an almost oppressive manner. It all leads towards a bitter conclusion that everything, including the kids, are far from alright. Loveless is beautiful in its bleakness, and like the bitter cold of Russian winter, it will sink deep into your bones and keep you chilled for long after the film has ended.
Loveless is now playing in select cities.