A feuding self-centred couple—intent on moving on with their individual lives after their imminent divorce—are confronted by their own loveless upbringing and the neglectful treatment of their young son after he mysteriously disappears, in this stark modern Russian family drama from writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev.
After masterfully addressing pertinent social issues revolving around power, corruption and family strife in contemporary Russia with 2014’s multiple award-winning ‘Leviathan’, Zvyagintsev switches focus from provincial small-town life to the big city, fixing his critical eye on broken families and the growing Russian middle class for this bleak and poignant story of selfishness and neglect—and the smallest, most vulnerable victims of it all.
Maryana Spivak stars as bitter and resentful mother-of-one ‘Zhenya’; modern working woman and spitfire who spends more quality time with her phone than with her 12-year-old ‘Alexey’ (Matvey Novikov), locked in vitriolic animosity with her husband ‘Boris’ (Aleksey Rozin)—himself a cold self-controlled man, more concerned with his deskbound career than familial responsibility—both of them neglectful parents at marriage’s end. As they move on to new romances and young Alexey suddenly vanishes, a confronting and extensive local search will dredge up painful memories and beg the question of whether there was ever love in this soon-to-be defunct family . . . or if any of these broken people are even truly capable of it.
For those familiar with Russian cinema, or indeed their art and literature, the sombre tone of this contemporary Russian drama will not be a surprise. Zvyagintsev is once again fearless in projecting a microcosm of modern post-Soviet Russian society onto global audiences, dealing not only with pertinent social issues of neglect, abandonment and child runaways—but also subtly addressing the perception of divorce and the return and rise of fundamental Christian values after the fall of the iron curtain.
‘Loveless’ has a tone and an emotional makeup which truly lives up to its title. Let’s not mince words the film is glum, featuring a weighty dose of broken family drama and character dissection that’s only momentarily broken up by the occasional bit of deadpan and glib Russian humour, but even then it amounts to levity applied to a rather tragic character or piece of human interaction. Zvyagintsev clearly has no love for his lead couple—despite the fact that he treats them as fully-rounded people with aspirations and not as caricatures—portraying them as self-serving modern individuals with a ‘grass is greener’ outlook, but destined to repeat patterns and mistakes.
Yet despite the fact that this is a painfully considered slow-burn drama, without being particularly eventful or displaying a real shred of melodrama, and even though it may even border on cold-pressed nihilism at times, it still manages to be utterly engrossing and perturbing for the entire two-hour-plus runtime—thanks largely to the superb and nuanced performances of its two leads.
Both Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin bring to life two very layered opposing characters, the former more vocal and expressive and the latter more reserved and calculating, but both sharing an egocentric core which seems to drive their comfortable middle-class existence. Spivak in particular deserves praise for a memorable performance as an ‘apple not fallen far from the tree’, who manages to come off as odious and almost impossible to empathise with—despite having suffered tragedy herself and committing no great atrocity . . . and frankly having character flaws which might feel familiar on any rung of Western society.
For some, ‘Loveless’ may be too morose and melancholy an experience to be captivating, perhaps too devoid of heart to recommend, and it certainly does nothing to discourage the perception of Russians as cold and emotionally harsh in some quarters in the West. But beneath the gloom there is plenty of spirit to be seen and more than enough layering to make this a troubling but engrossing human drama, with the nuance of character and theme to keep you engaged throughout.
The film is no doubt a stark look at the new and growing Russian middle class, weighed down by all the familiar materialistic trappings of Western society, succumbing to the same tendencies which sap the soul and erode the fabric of society, threatening to create a generation drowning in frustration and anxiety—and all presented in cold and stoic Cossack style. But the film’s true power is its ability to resonate well beyond Russian borders, and function as an uncomfortable conversation starter about child neglect and the very nature of the modern family—perhaps putting forth the idea that the way to create better people is to mould better parents . . . or perhaps encourage some to not procreate in the first place.
The Bottom Line…
A sombre and sobering family drama with a quintessentially Russian taste but globally reflective themes about the complexities and pitfalls of modern living, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest dark cinematic reflection of contemporary Russia will captivate and outrage in equal measure— leaving you contemplating your own upbringing and wanting to hug you children tightly . . . and make you think twice before complaining about your own parents.
‘Loveless’ is out now in Russia, and on the 10th of November in the UK.