The description makes it sound simple – a couple fighting all the time, clearly at odds with one another and showing a vitriol that only the closeness of a relationship can engender. Bearded Boris (Alexei Rozin) and his wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) still share their home while waiting for their split to be solidified. There’s a pre-teen child (Matvey Novikov) old enough to be caught in the middle, a small part of the larger family unit that’s being used both as a distraction and emotional weaponry. When the child goes missing the film shifts, where parents are forced to confront each other and the connections with those around them.
While this seems highly straightforward, like some sort of banal procedural, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s meditation upon corruption in all its myriad forms is nothing short of astonishing. Many plaudits were granted to Zvyagintsev’s previous film Leviathan, and there was much to celebrate. While it’s only 20 minutes longer than Loveless that work felt too long, too dour and meandering, and too repetitive with characters resulting in a work broadly drawn and unconvincing. Whether you share these feelings about that Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe winning work or not, it should be wholeheartedly argued that Loveless is deserving of even more praise. Everything that was a fault in Leviathan is rectified, everything glorious elevated to even higher limits.
There are moments of such shattering cinematic aptitude that they’ll leave you breathless, including sudden reveals as dramatic as any horror movie jump scare, the tears of a crying child as penetrating as anything you’ll see on screen this year. There’s the filth of a hospital basement and the austerity of a wintery park, with a cool, somber palate that never feels monochromatic. There are scenes in cars as balletic as a dance, and discussions that feel intimate to the point of discomfort.
The performances are exemplary, the pacing deliberate without ever being boring and the dialogue as sharp as a knife. Atop the narrative are myriad forms of allusions to contemporary Russian culture, from its media landscape through to its forays into places like the Ukraine. One visual moment that easily could have been over-the-top instead is a triumph, a woman wearing Russian Olympic garb on a treadmill, running in place. Beyond these overt moments there are deft and subtle allusions to other aspects of Russian history and politics. Yet the film in no ways feels provincial, the feelings and behaviours of the characters as universal as any great work of literature.
We witness the banality of police bureaucracy dealing with the emotional cacophony of a missing child, yet there’s also a discomforting competence. This is weariness at play, not idiocy, and if Leviathan’s institutions were risible these ones simply mask, often effectively, the true misery that’s often being confronted.
The film provides no easy answers, yet at the same time it’s never obtuse for the sake of generating mystery. As it develops the film becomes increasingly complex with its emotional tenor, ripping apart expectations at each move until one is left quite simply shattered. There’s no overt catharsis, no sense of culmination, and it does so without simply running out of steam. It’s as harrowing and humbling as life itself can be, refusing simple answers, showing that arguments can be winnerless and dreams of a different situation may not bring about happiness desired.
Loveless is a robust achievement, a symphony of sorrow that speaks eloquently about the human condition and the unique circumstances of Russia in the 21st century. It’s a complex emotional work unafraid to equally be cerebral, showcasing the best qualities of World Cinema in one dark, unforgettable package.