Loveless is mostly about a boy from a broken home who goes missing, but somehow it also wants to be about Russia and Ukraine’s broken relationship.
Director of Photography:
Running time: 125 minutes
Original title: Нелюбовь
Transliterated title: Nelyubov
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless has something to do with the conflict in Ukraine. But every time we think the director is about to make the connection clear, he lets go of the chain. This game of hide and seek perfectly suits the material he is working with: Minutes into the film, a 12-year-old boy, Alexey, runs away from home, where his parents are about to divorce, but neither wants to take him along on the ride to a brighter future. For the rest of the film’s 2-hour running time, he remains missing, even though the camera constantly lingers on empty scenes just to tease us with the possibility he will suddenly appear from out of frame. But he never does.
Thanks to snippets of radio programmes we hear in cars, we can deduce that most of the story takes place at the end of 2012, as (then–opposition leader, now the late) Boris Nemtsov is in the news and there is mention of an Obama–Romney debate. In the film’s final coda, the action moves to 2014, around the time of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian television news networks flood the airwaves with stories about death and destruction in the country’s small neighbour to the West, all allegedly the fault of the newly installed government in Kyiv.
However, despite these political undertones, which only surface intermittently, the film lacks the furious anger that made Zvyagintsev’s previous work, Leviathan, so ambitious and affirmed him as one of the bravest big-name filmmakers working in Russia today. On the whole, Loveless wants us to focus more on the story of the lost boy rather than the allegorical implications the narrative might (or might not) entail, but for both emotional and structural reasons, that is not always easy.
The film certainly lives up to its title. Drained almost entirely of colour, the story initially takes place on the outskirts of a remote Moscow suburb, where monotonous Soviet-era high-rise apartment blocks permeate the landscape and winter has turned the local park into a lifeless morass scattered with monstrous dead branches. In the scenes that follow, Loveless sketches Alexey’s ice-cold domestic situation in broad strokes that make us want to bolt from the apartment as quickly as possible.
The atmosphere is decrepit; in fact, the film could just as well have been called “lifeless”, although the two main characters – Alexey’s parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) – provide for riveting, stunningly tense scenes whenever they are in the same room. We also get to see, as Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin demonstrated brilliantly, that children born from a mother who would rather see them aborted are bound for tragedy from Day 1.
There are no two ways about it: Zhenya is a terrible mother. Always more interested in her phone than in her son (or almost anything else, for that matter), she stares at her device from morning till night. But the director takes care to show us that she is not unique in this respect: In restaurants and elsewhere, Moscow’s young women can’t get enough of seeing themselves in their selfies. The difference, of course, is that Zhenya has a family, at least for the moment. There is a distinction to be made with the older generation, as a scene in which Zhenya’s own loud-mouthed mother steamrolls over her with a flood of rhetoric that leaves us reeling with admiration because someone has finally put her in her place.
Although we see him for a very short amount of time, which includes a revelation that stabs the viewer right through the heart, we can completely empathise with Alexey and understand why he chooses to run away. Zvyagintsev is also very attentive in his depiction of the police, who are surprisingly sincere about the situation, even though Zhenya doesn’t deserve it.
But this is the kind of film only those who prefer their mysteries open-ended will appreciate. Zvyagintsev will likely lose many a viewer during some of the slower and more drawn-out scenes that do not lead very far and certainly don’t head in the direction of solving the central puzzle. One take that lasts for several minutes, in which the camera barely moves, shows Zhenya and her new boyfriend together in bed while she recounts the story of her pregnancy with Alexey. This could have been much shorter and simply integrated into another scene, when she and her husband are trapped in a car for several hours.
By the time Loveless reaches the scene from 2014 in which the Russian televisions are hysterically blaming the supposed violence in Ukraine on the West, it feels like Zvyagintsev is heading into different territory. But when we see Zhenya, who by the looks of it is still as cold and narcissistic as before, donning a bright-red tracksuit clearly labelled “RUSSIA” and seemingly unaffected by the violence onscreen, we know there is a connection with the domestic carnage that went before. Unfortunately, the link is just too tenuous to grasp.