Nominated for Best Foreign Language film at the 90th Academy Awards, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless doesn’t so much paint a portrait of the death of a nuclear family; it pulls the corpse from its body bag, dissecting it in front of the eyes of an Instagram-filtered, war-hungry society. If you’re already familiar with the director’s previous work, such as Leviathan, which was also nominated for an Oscar, then you’ll perhaps already know what to expect.
When their twelve-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), disappears on the way to school, a soon-to-be divorced couple, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), are brought together just as they’re desperately trying to escape each other. Whilst the audience doesn’t know where Alexey is, we are left in no uncertain terms as to the reasons why he may have gone. In one of the film’s more chilling sequences, Boris and Zhenya are at each other’s throats, trading insults and arguing who should take custody of their son. Boris is living with his pregnant girlfriend (as well as her mother and aunt), so he feels that Alexey would be better placed with Zhenya. She, however, has taken on an older lover and has no desire to clean up her ex-husband’s mess, as she puts it. Whilst this horrendous display of selfishness and bitterness plays out, a door is closed and it’s revealed that, unbeknownst to the parents, Alexey has heard everything; his body shaking with the kind of trauma that should never be inflicted on a child.
With a lost child, one that is possibly in danger, the temptation is to construct a narrative that sees the parent’s quickly work out their problems so they can pool their resources. But this is not that film. Alexey’s disappearance happens in a world where police shrug indifferently to such a case, their hands tied by decades of bureaucratic nonsense. It’s a world where the Ukraine is under siege, people cheat on their partners even whilst they’re on dates, and people toast their drinks to ‘love and selfies’. So, in short, the world as it is in real life. As such, it should be no surprise that rather than dulling their animosity, the search for Alexey simply sharpens his parents’ hatred of each other. Organising a search party with a volunteer group, Zhenya and Boris think nothing of taking pot-shots at each other. It snowballs to such a point that there’s even a suggestion that their pigheadedness will actually get in the way of the investigation and any kind of resolution.
This vitriol appears to be handed down from generation to generation. As displayed in one scene when Zhenya’s mother screams at her daughter that she and Boris probably orchestrated Alexey’s disappearance so they can get her house. With that kind of compassion being doled out whilst growing up, it’s no wonder Zhenya slaps her son and admits to others that she hates him for smelling like Boris.
Whilst there’s a bountiful supply of impotent rage on screen, it doesn’t cloud the technical beauty of the film’s camerawork. There’s a stillness to the film, a coldness that encroaches everyone that walks into frame. To this end, it’s best to point out, if it’s not already noticeable, that Loveless is a stifling film and its incredibly grim treatment of family life will not be to everyone’s taste.
It’s a fascinating but exhaustive film, which isn’t helped by number of superfluous scenes that should have found a nice bed on the cutting room floor. For example, in pursuit of showing just how distant we’ve all become as a society, Zvyagintsev tries to draw a line between Alexey’s disappearance and Zhenya’s love of social media, as if, somehow, they’re synonymous. With so many other things working against her, this smart phone addition feels more like a case of ‘old man yells at cloud’, than a real exploration of our need for ‘likes’.
With all that said, this is still a fascinatingly bleak look at a parent’s worst nightmare. Its constant dislike of humanity will not work for everyone, but if you can allow yourself to be in that mindset then Loveless will stick with you for a long time.
SCREEN REALM SCORE: ★★★☆☆
Loveless opens in Australian cinemas on April 25.