LFF 2017: Loveless Review
More on BFI London Film Festival 2017
Following the backlash director Andrey Zvyagintsev received from the Russian government after the release of the partly state funded Leviathan, he knew not to make the same mistake twice. At least with the funding, that is. His follow-up, Loveless, somehow manages to be even bleaker than his 2014 release, although the criticism about Russian society is less overt. He forms a world where capitalism is now permanently stained in the stench of corruption and an absorption in the pursuit of self is the acceptable norm. And yet, even though Zvyagintsev's eye is trained on his own country, its scathing tone is equally as universal.
The directors desolate, dreary view of Russia is evident once again from the opening few moments, following 12-year-old Alyosha (Andris Keishs) as he walks the snow-covered route back towards his parents' apartment. He keeps to himself at home and his divorcing parents remain oblivious to the fact that not only is he aware they are separating but neither his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), or father, Boris (long-time Zvyagintsev collaborator Alexey Rozin), want to take on the responsibility of being a single parent. Alyosha is an inconvenience to the new lives they want to begin and instead their focus is set on hurting each other and starting afresh.
Their son appears to be invisible to them both, and this is brilliantly show in single scene where Zhenya and Boris continue to hurl insults from one room to another. They remain oblivious to the fact that their son is stood silently behind the kitchen door, tears flooding from his eyes as he overhears his parents reveal the lack of care and affection they hold for him. The coldness of the family home stands in stark contrast to the warmth both Boris and Zhenya have found in their new relationships. An evening away from home shows Boris’ intimacy with his younger pregnant girlfriend and Zhenya finding happiness with a new older man. No thought is given to who exactly is looking after Alyosha for the night and when Zhenya returns home in the early hours, she discovers that Alyosha has disappeared.
The resulting search takes them down a number of dead-end paths, frustrated by the police’s inability to provide adequate resources and left to rely on a local charitable organisation to help find their son. Boris and Zhenya can barely stand to spend time in the same room together and struggle to unify even at a time like this. Despite the quite pathetic Boris being responsible for ruining their marriage, Zhenya is seen as the self-obssessed villain, her head always down, on her mobile, or talking selfies and food pics. That is until we are given more context about her own past by meeting her mother, a hard-talking battle axe, or “Stalin in heels,” as Boris calls her.
Zvyagintsev continues his critique of the state of modern Russia, seen through people's obsessive use of mobile phones and the placement of material wealth ahead of substance. Radio and TV news broadcasts speak of corruption and the death and destruction growing in the Ukraine, yet people are too numb to offer much of a reaction. It takes the ongoing disappearance of their son for Boris and Zhenya to wake out of their detached state and start to finally realise how the toxicity of their relationship has culminated in this tragedy.
What frustrates most about Loveless is the distance it keeps from these people and, at times, how listless it can feel. While both Spivak and Rozin offer compelling performances that almost – but ultimately does not – serve as a wake-up call for their characters, you can’t help but wonder what Zvyagintsev is really trying to say. As far as he's concerned, Russia has been stripped of its soul and society exists without meaning, as illustrated by this dysfunctional family crisis. There doesn’t appear to be any hope, or optimism at all, and while it paints a despairingly grim picture and remains difficult to penetrate, you have to admire Zvyagintsev’s resolute approach to showing us the world on his terms alone.