Quietly commanding and utterly compelling, this finely layered drama from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is an immensely powerful examination of regret and the consequences of compromise. Sustained by its performances and tone, the movie is a bleak, haunting experience that remains absorbing even when there seems, on the surface at least, to be very little happening. This is a film that will no doubt engender myriad emotional responses during the course of its running time, from anger to empathy and everything in between. Having been responsible for some of the most well received films of recent times with the likes of Elena and Leviathan, Zvyagintsev has produced yet another powerfully perceptive examination of contemporary Russia, this time via a recently divorced couple for whom resentment and hatred are the core of their daily existence in the small apartment they share with their young son for whom neither wants to take any responsibility.
After a mesmeric opening shot that captures the brutal beauty of a Russian winter, we meet 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) as he exits school for the day with a smile on his face, taking his time to explore the creek and surrounds as he makes his way home. Although they are divorced, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) continue to live together whilst waiting for their apartment to sell, incessantly bickering whilst each is trying to palm responsibility for Alyosha on to the other. Both are involved in new relationships and neither sees their son as anything more than a hindrance to their future happiness. There are heartbreaking moments as Alyosha, unable to avoid overhearing the tensions on the other side of the wall as his parents try desperately to abdicate their parental responsibilities, sobs quietly in his room, all the while trying to make sure they don’t hear him crying for fear it will only strengthen their resolve. In these opening scenes, both parents present as reprehensible self-absorbed individuals, however when Alyosha disappears without a trace, Zvyagintsev slowly probes beneath the surface to reveal the circumstances – both at a personal and societal level – that has led to the disintegration of their relationship.
As we spend more time with Zhenya and Boris and their respective new partners, we develop considerable more insight into them both as the script, written by Zvyagintsev in collaboration with Oleg Negin, delivers both dignity and complexity to the pair and the two performers are outstanding in bringing considerable nuance to their characters. Zhenya has found herself a stylish older new partner in Anton (Andris Keishs), while Boris seems to be punching above his weight with his heavily-pregnant girlfriend (Yanina Hope), although the mystery of Alyosha’s disappearance proves a significant test to the strength of both relationships. As the various authorities set about trying to find Alyosha, much of what transpires is reminiscent of the type of scenes we would see here in Australia or other parts of the world in such circumstances; teams of volunteers undertaking carefully orchestrated searches through abandoned buildings and bushland in search of anything that could shed some light onto his disappearance. The audience is never afforded any more information than those undertaking the search with regard to what may have happened to Alyosha and the narrative alternates between the efforts of those trying to locate Alyosha and the intricacies that both Zhenya and Boris face in trying to negotiate the new relationships in which they are both ensconced.
What seems a small story on the surface, Loveless delivers a not-too-subtle critique on Russia at large; radio and television news programs emphasise the deep financial, geographical and generational divisions that have fractured Russian society. Set in a modern Russia that seems devoid of hope, and populated by characters who are swathed in sadness and emotional failure, Loveless is powerful, prophetic and perfectly performed; a remarkable achievement from a modern master.