Teodosia Dobriyanova on Andrey Zvaygintsev’s ‘Loveless’ (2017)
IN THE MIDST OF PICTURESQUE URBAN woods during the Russian winter, a young boy finds a piece of abandoned police tape beside the log of a tree. After fondling it for a while, the boy throws the tape upwards in the air, whereupon it gets stuck between tree branches. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s camera zooms into a distant building in the background, targeting a single window. On the other side of the glass is a young boy named Alyosha (Matbey Novikov), blankly contemplating the outside world that the camera had just departed. Suddenly, his mother Zhenya (Mariana Spivak) enters and Alyosha, as children do, pretends to read his book. With a voice devoid of motherly affection, she tells her son to tidy his room, as people are coming to view the apartment. It turns out, the family is going through a divorce, the home is for sale. Such is the opening of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest work, Loveless, a story about the departure of love from a modern family destroyed in its absence.
During a prolonged first act, the film establishes its loveless universe. Feeling nothing but growing abhorrence for her husband, Zhenya prefers to indulge in hedonistic pleasures over spending time at home—treatments in the beauty salon and romantic dinners with her new, charming, older boyfriend. Even when she is physically present, her thoughts are with her phone, scrolling purposelessly through her social media feed. The constant absence of the husband, Boris (Alexey Rozin), during this first act speaks volumes regarding his engagement in the family. It even seems a plausible scenario that the divorce was triggered by the appearance of Boris’ young, new girlfriend in the last stages of her pregnancy with his child.,
Aloysha seems to be the last concern of his parents. It all escalates one evening when Zhenya and Boris begin a vicious fight, each of them blaming the other for their ruined lives. Words of regret for not aborting Aloysha sound before Zhenya leaves the room to go the bathroom, with the camera following her for seemingly no reason. Then she leaves, but the camera remains, revealing little Aloysha hidden and crying behind the bathroom door. This devastating scene marks the end of the first act. The next day, Alyosha disappears.
At this rupture, Loveless begins to dissect the psycho-sociological reasons behind Alyosha’s disappearance. Meanwhile, his parents continue to express regret for his existence whilst, paradoxically, taking to the the road to look for him, devastated by his disappearance and battling each other and the resource-lacking bureaucracy. We begin to peep into Zhenya’s psyche too, her perspective on life influenced by a hostile mother. Zvyagintsev’s film is an exploration in the darkest corners of contemporary Russian society; torn between the conservative roots of the country where Orthodox religion dictates societal values and the Capitalist values of the West, Zvyagintsev re-iterates the philosophical questions that have burdened him throughout his career – is there an authenticity to the human character that remains immune to societal influences, or are we all consequences of the socio-economical reality that surrounds us?
Even if it seems that the film leaves the realm of realism, ‘Loveless’ always remains deeply grounded in it, delivering sociological examinations to every nonsensical situation. For example, while having lunch with one of his co-workers inside their modernist office building, Boris commences a bizarre conversation “What happens if someone working for their company divorces?” Why should anything happen? The whole scene enfolds in the manner of a Lanthimosean absurdist dystopia, having us thinking that Zvyagintsev’s new film will contain such surreal elements. Then, we get an explanation: Boris’ boss is a fanatical Orthodox Christian who believes in domestic patriarchal values and only values “family people” in his company. The realism of Loveless contains all sorts of common absurdities that citizens of contemporary Russia are no strangers of. The characters are defined by either a conservative past or a soulless future.
An overpowering postmodern soundtrack composed by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine contributes to the omnipresent darkness, but also positions the film in a contemporary context. This, together with an exquisite cinematography and use of faded colour palettes in the set design, contribute to the moody work of art that Loveless is.
As it seems to be a tradition in Zvyagintsev’s filmography, after the human story has been told, Loveless leaves us where it started, within nature—changing but unchanged. Seasons have circulated a few times and we are again at winter, but the magnificent trees and the cold snow remain indifferent to anything that happens. This acknowledgement of nature’s indifference is interesting to consider, bearing in mind the frequent critiques of religion often found in Zvyagintev’s work. A devastating exploration of humanity’s fallibility, Loveless is a haunting work of art demonstrating that both living in the past and denying its existence has the potential to be equally destructive.