There's a stark isolationism that penetrates every cell of Andrei Zvyagintsev's Loveless, a 2017 Academy Award-nominated film that will finally make its way to the Indianapolis market with a March 30th release at Landmark's Keystone Art Cinema. Zvyagintsev's last film, Leviathan, won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and simultaneously created controversy for the acclaimed director within his homeland as the film shed light on corruption and hard times in Russia.
Loveless is different, or so it seems to be on the surface. The story centers around Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), a bitterly hostile married couple on the verge of what has been a protacted divorce. Both have moved on to new partners, Boris with a young, rather traditional woman whom he's already gotten pregnant and Zhenya with a wealthy older businessman who offers her a level of financial stability she had almost no hopes of finding with Boris. Yet, they still live together until all the details of their divorce can be worked out including the fate of their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whom neither one particularly wants and whose undesired birth forced a marriage that likely never should have been.
If you were to construct an argument for pro-choice, this "family" would be Exhibit A. Boris and Zhenya are a miserable lot and one imagines that running away from one another isn't going to change a damn thing for them. They've managed to create a miserable marriage and a miserable family and a miserable child. Indeed, Alyosha wears his misery on every fiber of his being and his face radiating the sort of silent scream that makes you realize this is a young boy who is already broken beyond repair.
After one particularly devastating quarrel in the cramped flat they all share, a bathroom door is flung open to reveal Alyosha's achingly tear-stained face, a face that says everything even as Alyosha himself says nothing.
Then, before long, Alyosha goes missing.
Boris and Zhenya respond with something resembling disgrunted inconvenience meets agitation meets apathetic disregard, their methodical attempts at locating the fruit of their loins met by equally formulaic disinterest by an overwhelmed local police department and a well-meaning yet clearly ineffective local group of volunteer searchers.
Every moment of Loveless possesses a doomy paranoia, a sense that in this vast, institutionalized land the notion of finding a single human being is laughable at best. The search takes them, and us, through dense forests where volunteers scream out Alyosha's name at the top of their lungs with some inconceivable hope that a missing child, possibly one who wished to be missing, would possibly respond in return. The searchers march through abandoned apartment buildings not far removed from the building where Alyosha once lived with his family, abandoned wastelands, and even a tension-filled Soviet era complex that is Stalker-esque in its decayed and dilapidated present state.
It is not long, of course, before Boris and Zhenya are being summoned to local hospitals to lay their eyes upon children abandoned within their facilities, some living and some awaiting claim in the hospital morgue,
Zvyagintsev has denied that Loveless is yet another cinematic statement on the state of Russian society and, indeed, that might be a reasonable conclusion based solely upon the pervasive presence of dysfunctional family dynamics throughout Loveless.
Yet, there is more.
Loveless is set in 2012, radios and televisions are blaring Ukraine-obsessed propaganda and Alyosha has grown up knowing only the Putin-era Russia. Those who display any semblance of empathy or compassion are in the vast minority, dwarfed by the decayed remnants of out of control capitalism and lost amidst ambitious, driven men for whom human connection is about acquiring and women who are almost cartoonishly in pursuit of the next great selfie and desperate attempts at mating with just the right partner.
Loveless captured the Jury Award at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival along with Best Picture at the London Film Festival. Zvyagintsev financed the $5 million motion picture outside the usual Russian financing channels in an effort to avoid having to seek final approval for the film, though it's possibly worth noting that even with the Russian government's negative opinion of Leviathan they had no problem choosing it as their representative in the Academy Awards. Indeed, one of the greatest frustrations I have as an Indiana-based film journalist is that such masterful films as Loveless are not frequently seen within our borders until long after awards season is over and the film quietly finds a home on what is typically a single screen in one of Indy's arthouse theaters.
Loveless is a masterpiece, or damn near a masterpiece, certainly one of the most emotionally resonant and intellectually satisfying films of this past year in any language, a film that says more than it speaks and that grabs you in its opening scenes and never lets you go. There are some that have called Loveless a hopeless film. I would argue that they're wrong, yet the film's overwhelming hopelessness may be difficult for some with shimmers and glimmers of hope surfacing only from time-to-time in the form of searchers who continue to search despite the absurdity of it all and characters who shift, at least to varying degrees, by film's end.
There is hope in Loveless to be found, though it is nearly suffocated into non-existence by a society too busy fighting to survive to worry about such frivolity as love. The performances are uniformly sublime even within the discomfort that they create, Alexey Rozin's Boris a man barely afloat, emotionally and physically, and whose cycle of despair seems never ending and Maryana Spivak's extraordinary Zhenya simultaneously callous and cold yet infinitely compelling and, especially in the film's later scenes, offering glimpses of humanity. Among the supporting players, one must mention Matvey Novikov's tremendous turn as Alyosha and Marina Vasileva's wonderful turn as Boris's new girlfriend, Masha.
Mikhail Krichman's lensing is exceptional, the camera often linger in ways that are emotionally resonant yet distant and beautifully capturing Russia's seemingly ever present snow and the ways in which it envelopes everyone and everything within it. Andrey Ponkratov's immersive production design is simply stunning.
Loveless was easily one of the best motion pictures of 2017 and even for those film journalists and connoisseurs who were able to capture it by screening link during awards season it's a film that demands to be experienced on an actual movie screen. It's a masterpiece from a filmmaker coming to be known for masterpieces that illuminate the human condition and the ways in which the institutions often dictate them.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic