Just about every aspect of Loveless is executed perfectly.
By Peg Aloi
In this harrowing portrait of divorce, filmmaker Andrei Zvyagintsev, director of the acclaimed 2014 film Leviathan, creates a perilous landscape of emotions. The film opens with shots of trees on the bank of a river in winter; there’s no movement but the water and a few ducks swimming. Then we see an empty schoolyard, and in a few moments the bell rings and kids start running out the door. Twelve year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) high fives his friend and heads home, smiling, walking along the path by the river we’ve just seen, but this time there is no snow. He finds some old plastic tape and stands precariously on a horizontal tree trunk by the water, tossing the tape high into the branches with a stick, where it becomes attached. He admires his handiwork for a bit, watching the tape swaying in the wind, and then continues on his way home.
Home is not a happy place, however. His mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) seems to spend most of her time staring at the smartphone in her hand. She tells her son to tidy up his room because the realtor is bringing people to look at the apartment. Soon a young couple and female realtor arrive; when they look into the boy’s bedroom, where he is doing homework, he is unresponsive. Zhenya scolds him for being rude, humiliating him in front of the strangers by saying he cries all the time. Later, after his father Boris (Aleksey Rozin) arrives, we witness the cause of the boy’s sadness and stress. Boris still lives there. The couple coldly discuss the sale of the apartment, which eventually escalates into an argument about who Alyosha will live with after the divorce. Zhenya mentions boarding school and the military; she resents Boris’ expectation that she should “clean up the mess” he created. When Zhenya crosses into another room we see Alyosha hiding behind a glass paned door, crying silently, his face contorted with anguish. Boris sleeps on the couch that night.
The next morning at breakfast, Alyosha insists he can’t eat any more, and tries to hide his tears when his mother asks if he is ill. We see him put on his coat and backpack and run down the stairs of his building; the camera lingers on the stair railing and we hear his footsteps bounding down the steps. There’s something eerie about the camera’s movement here, following the curve of the railing, but not showing us Alyosha’s progression down the stairs. As the day moves along, we see Boris at work in a large bustling office. He asks a co-worker at lunch about how he can hide his divorce from the boss, a devout Christian who insists that his employees be married with children. We then see Zhenya being waxed and coiffed at the spa where she works. Both of them have dates that night, it turns out.Just about every aspect of Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless is executed perfectly.Click To TweetBoris’ younger girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasileva), lives with her mother and is pregnant with Boris’s child. Their routine together is domestic. They go grocery shopping and Masha informs him her mother is away so they’ll have the place to themselves. As soon as the groceries are put away, they become amorous, and a fairly intense sex scene follows. Afterwards, Masha becomes fretful and clingy, asking Boris if he will leave her after the baby is born. He reassures her, and offers to cook dinner. Meanwhile, Zhenya’s boyfriend Anton (Andriss Keiss) also provides a romantic evening: dinner at a fancy restaurant and then lovemaking in his stunning high end apartment.
The parallel segment of the divorcing couple with their respective dates is fairly long. There is no indication that Alyosha is either at home or with a caregiver. Then Zhenya receives a phone call at work; her son has not been seen at school in two days. She calls Boris, who is unhelpful, and then the police. The police officer asks Zhenya some cursory questions, then recommends she contact the volunteer search and rescue organization. The man who leads this group is a paragon of organization and common sense. He believes, despite Zhenya’s protests, Alyosha may have gone to his grandmother’s house. A woman who works with the group offers to accompanies Zhenya to her mother’s place in the countryside, a two-hour drive. The volunteer follows Boris and Zhenya in Boris’s car, and he provokes his wife by playing music too loud and refusing to close the windows. When they arrive at Zhenya’s mother’s house, it’s clear she is experiencing difficulty being on her own; her solitary existence is most likely exacerbating her tendency to be paranoid and antisocial. The rescue volunteer looks on while Zhenya and her mother argue. On the way home, Zhenya talks about her childhood, her mother’s oppressive behavior, and blames Boris for ruining her life. He forces her out of the car.
The search efforts intensify. Large groups of volunteers in orange vests hunt through the woods; one of Alyosha’s friends leads them to an old abandoned building the boys used to play in. Every effort turns out to be a dead-end. In a more sentimental kind of film, Zhenya and Boris might find a way to ignore their conflicts and work together in a civil manner to find their child. But their rancor and resentment defines every interaction; their apparent lack of awareness about their own self absorption underlines an unconscious realization: their son was lost to them well before his physical disappearance.
Just about every aspect of this film is executed perfectly. The performances are excellent, the music by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine is very effective, the cold, melancholy cinematography (by Leviathan’s Mikhail Krichman) is stark yet rich. The film’s rhythms and moods inch along, rising and falling, propelled by a mundane sense of dread and barely-contained emotion. Fleeting audio of current news is heard: talk of armageddon, civil strife in Ukraine, and environmental devastation. These characters live in a world that is crumbing from within and without.
The mastery of the director is evident throughout. Zvyagintsev’s insinuating transitions and dramatic use of metaphor are executed in an elegant, wordless manner. For example, after the volunteers question Alyosha’s school friend, the teacher is seen cleaning the blackboards with a wet cloth. The music is soft yet insistent, slightly discordant violins can be heard. The camera pulls back slowly on this seemingly inconsequential action, and we see large white flakes of snow falling outside the window. The implications for the search and for Alyosha’s fate are captured here in a stunningly rendered moment that is achingly ordinary — the moment of calm before the storm. Russia has never looked or felt colder.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for The Boston Phoenix. She taught film and TV studies for ten years at Emerson College, and currently teaches at SUNY New Paltz. Her reviews also appear regularly online for The Orlando Weekly, Cinemazine, and Diabolique. Her long-running media blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.