Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest film, “Loveless,” has been nominated for the best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s interesting counterprogramming for the week of Valentine’s Day. There is no love lost in “Loveless,” because there was never any love to begin with in this tragic tale of a family’s dissolution. It’s an impeccably made film, with two ferocious performances at the center, and it is almost unbearably, impossibly bleak.
The family at the center of the film is already in crisis. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are on the cusp of a divorce, which hinges only on the sale of their apartment and Boris’s ability to hide his marital failure from his conservative Christian boss. Having already moved on to other partners, they are only able to spit venom at each other when they have to share space. They’re both incredibly selfish as well.
But the tale concerns a family, not a couple. Zhenya and Boris have a child, 12 year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whom they barely seem to notice. He’s a quiet, introspective child, one who makes himself scarce when his parents start to fight. Novikov is on screen for only a very short amount of time, but he makes Alyosha’s pain and fear of his warring parents intensely palpable.
“Loveless” is a study of the maxim “be careful what you wish for.” Zhenya confesses to her new lover that she only married Boris because she became pregnant, and that she would have been better off aborting the child if it meant not marrying a husband she never loved and now hates. When she crashes at home after a date night, she receives a call in the morning that Alyosha hasn’t been in school for two days. He’s missing, slipping away unnoticed by his absentee parents.
Their son’s mysterious disappearance is the main thrust of “Loveless,” the story of a boy who seemingly vaporized into thin air out of neglect. But this isn’t a melodrama of high theatrics. Zhenya and Boris are controlled, and seem to barely wrap their minds around what has happened. They’re focused on fighting with each other and trying to maintain their new relationships while the search for Alyosha unfolds.
“Loveless” is astonishing in how methodically it unravels — the dramatics don’t come until much later. Zvyagintsev focuses on processes, and how things happen, because what actually happens seems so unreal. His controlled style set against cold interiors, juxtaposed with the near mythical disappearance of the boy, highlights the unreality of the situation and draws attention to the film’s metaphorical power.
This family tragedy is a portrait of Russia at a very specific time: We hear snippets of news reports mentioning American elections, and unspeakable violence in Ukraine. But while the film is thematically bleak, our protagonists lead comfortably appointed lives, with modern apartments and corporate jobs. They want for nothing, and yet they are unable to give anything. Zhenya mentions her mother’s rigid upbringing, and a visit to her house reveals the intergenerational hostility.
“Loveless” is an exploration of empathy, or the lack of it, that gets passed down from generation to generation, until finally, children simply vanish from lack of care. Zvyagintsev’s film is a canary in the coal mine, a warning sign, and a call to examine this crisis of empathy.
Rated: R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image. Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov. Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev. Running time: 127 minutes. Theater: Flicks. In Russian with English subtitles.