It’s festival season! The FilmSoc blog is covering the BFI’s 61st London Film Festival (4-15 October), diving into the myriad of films and events on offer to deliver reviews.
Milo Garner considers Andrey Zvyagintsev’s painful family drama.
Loveless opens, much like Andrey Zvyagintsev’s last film – Leviathan – with a montage of wordless images. We are presented with beautiful winter trees, glistening under a cold sun, to the sound of Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s disquieting soundtrack. Following this a longshot captures the end of a school day in Moscow and children making their way home. The camera follows one child in particular, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), tracking his movements via Zvyagintsev’s typical gliding motion. His route home is indirect, leading him to the snow-covered woods of the film’s beginning. Why this might be becomes soon apparent on his return home – his parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are in the final stages of a breakup of no small acrimony. One scene highlights this, in which the two viciously harangue one another on the fate of their son, as he listens on secretly from the bathroom. The slow pan that reveals Alexey sobbing silently is one of the film’s most quietly devastating moments, and it isn’t short on those.
The main narrative takes hold after this introduction, with the sudden, if not inexplicable, disappearance of Alexey. The disappearance of children is not new for Zvyagintsev, with The Return presenting the phenomena from an inversed perspective, and Leviathan including it as a brief plot beat. But here it takes centre-stage as far as the narrative is concerned. Rather than presenting a parental reunion, however temporary, to pool resources and find their child, Zvyagintsev instead uses this heightened tension to expose the full tragedy of Boris and Zhenya’s relationship. In fact, finding the child, while carrying some dramatic heft, is not particularly important to the film’s purpose. Both Boris and Zhenya are in separate relationships – importantly it is unclear who first betrayed who – Boris with a young women he has already managed to impregnate, Zhenya with an older man of no small wealth. For Boris a divorce is deeply worrying, as his boss is heavily Christian and such an action might lead him to be fired. Zhenya worries about having to take care of the son she believes despises her. The film’s 2012 setting also lends a mildly apocalyptic tone, with mention of the doomsday theories of that time cropping up on the radio. The world at large may not end, but the world known to Boris and Zhenya surely will.
As soon as Alexey disappears, Zvyagintsev takes aim at a target he formerly took to task in Leviathan – the Russian authorities. The police are called shortly after Zhenya realizes her son is missing, and the officer tells her it’s probably a runaway, and so they won’t do anything (until, of course, it’s probably too late). Yet for those who accused Zvyagintsev for being ‘anti-Russian’ in his last film, that Zhenya must instead rely on a civilian group devoted to finding missing children surely contradicts this sentiment. It isn’t the Russian people he has issue with, though his films might often be populated by cruel Russians, but the larger structures, social or political, they find themselves part of. If anything, Loveless characterizes the Russian saying Nadezhda emirate posledney: hope dies last. That Zvyagintsev is keen on elucidating that final knell gives the film its tragic power, though even then the final shot invites a number of divergent interpretations on that note.
Through their rancorous alliance to try and discover their son, the silently-acknowledged seams in Boris and Zhenya’s become gaping chasms. The tension between them builds excellently as they’re forced to cooperate despite one another. We reach an initial climax in their visit to Zhenya’s mother, so-called by Boris ‘Stalin-in-a-skirt’ (a solid idiom). She reveals loudly she never approved of the pairing of Boris and Zhenya, and that keeping Alexey was a mistake. This argument continues between Boris and Zhenya as they drive home, Zhenya exclaiming that she should have had an abortion and that Boris had ‘ruined her life.’ It’s a moment of extremity, and one admirably responded to by Rozin, whose performance is especially good as his often-meek and reserved character is pushed into open conflict. But it is in Zhenya’s character that the more interesting complexity lies, as her loud and aggressive front clearly does not portray her true feelings all of the time. Her utter rejection of Alexey seems based on her own insecurities, and in a later, truly heart-rending scene she admits that she would never have left him – a truth hiding only a little under the surface. Zvyagintsev leaves subtle clues to this effect throughout the film’s length, granting that climatic moment its potency. But her character’s outstanding pain, that she has lost the best years of her life to a loveless existence, is a feeling not easily shaken. Nor is the sadness of Boris, a small man but not an evil one, easily cast aside. Zvyagintsev has crafted characters who are often unpleasant, but rarely unreal.
Besides these strong central themes some others don’t land so heavily. One concerns the use of social media. Several shots are devoted to selfie-culture, and the ever-happy lives we present online. The actual purpose of this sub-theme is less clear, however, with a possible explanation being to create a sense of two spheres, the real and the online. This would feed into Alexey’s narrative, as he spent most of his time online, beyond the detection of his parents, and his doings were largely unknown to them. Just as Boris’ new girlfriend presents a smiling version of herself and her mother online moments after an argument, there was perhaps a different Alexey too. But this is not explored in any depth and could easily be a thin and disposable critique on phone obsession. Another area of the film that felt out of place was its political subtext, whose nuances I, admittedly, do not have much understanding of. It can be detected only in hints, with a radio broadcast first mentioning Kremlin corruption before subtly tagging on a news report of how Jill Stein was barred from electoral debates in the USA – we’re all as bad as each other, right? The epilogue of the film jumps some years later and we hear snippets of a television show talking about war in the Donbass, following on from other mentions of Ukraine throughout. While the director has claimed there is no political message in Loveless, he has also admitted that the comparison of the quarrelling couple to the situation in Ukraine was ‘absolutely obvious’ and that he ‘could not help but use it.’ Happily these comparisons are not too heavily laboured and certainly don’t make up the core of the film, but their necessity is questionable.
What isn’t questionable, however, is the technical brilliance on show. Much like in his former films, Zvyagintsev utilizes a gliding camera that constantly reframes images, otherwise holding for particularly long shots. This presents a sense of intimacy, and coupled with the beautiful composition and cold lighting, an immersion into each frame. But it is in the script and performances that Loveless comes to life, an examination of people pushed to their limits during an inescapable tragedy.
Loveless will have its UK premiere at London Film Festival on the 8th of October. From November10th, it will be available nation-wide. Check out the trailer below: