If there’s nothing you enjoy ogling in cinemas more that the abject misery of others, Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev is the filmmaker for you! His previous feature ‘Leviathan’ presented Russia as a frigid land of corruption and unhappiness drowning in chugged bottles of straight vodka. ‘Loveless’ is somehow even more depressing, which is likely how it snagged one of the top prizes at Cannes last year and is now nestled amongst the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees.
‘Loveless’ is a bitter and detached experience designed to depress even the most hardened filmgoer. There’s also a little political allegory going on. In other words, sad and lonely chain-smoking men with graying hair and fraying tweed jackets will eat it up and ask for seconds.
Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) have been married too long. Their coupling is essentially a game of dare to see who leaves first. Trapped in a generic apartment with no love in its walls and stuck in dead-end jobs they can barely stand, the couple are at the end of their ropes. Their lives are defined by constant bickering and affairs that they can’t even be bothered to hide. They also have a 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whom they barely pay attention to. Their concerns are more selfish. Boris has a pregnant girlfriend (Marina Vasileva) and plans to escape to his new fam, while Zhenya is banging the obscenely wealthy Anton (Andris Keiss) with a fantasy future of her own. With all that on their minds, they hardly ever pay attention to their kid, who spends most of his time hiding from their fights and weeping. Then he disappears. The parents don’t notice at first, and when they do, there’s little any authority or institution can do to help. There’s no reconciliation or growth between the parents as this all happens, just more pain thrown onto the pile, as well as some examination of how past mistakes added to the current depressing disaster.
This isn’t exactly a feel-good crowd-pleaser. The movie revels in misery and dares audiences to raise their expression above a scowl for the entire running time. The downer mood dominates the film. Zvyagintsev’s elegant compositions and long, leering shots barely allow any light or color into the drab world. The excellent lead performances from Aleksey Rozin and Maryana Spivak are rooted in defeat, pain, and rage. (Rozin can barely find the strength within himself to raise his shoulders most of the time, while Spivak seems to be in the midst of a prolonged raging breakdown from the first frame to the last.) The film is a gut-wrenching experience that feels like an endurance test of cinematic misery. There’s something to be said for the metaphoric poignancy of a marital relationship so toxic that it seems to make a child disappear. To top it all off, the film concludes with some heavy-handed newsreel symbolism that turns it into a parable about the failings of contemporary Russia.
Despite all that, ‘Loveless’ has a lot going for it on a variety of levels. However, something about it never quite resonates. Zvyagintsev’s single note of endless misery, regret, and failure transitions from being stylistically oppressive to just plain oppressive far too quickly. His previous feature ‘Leviathan’ hit the same prolonged note, but was so loaded with meaning and vivid characterizations that it somehow felt both intimate and epic. ‘Loveless’ feels like it’s stretching a point and a style too far. The payoff isn’t worth the painful journey (not unless your personal interests are exclusively contemporary Russian politics and depressing analogies for contemporary Russian politics, anyway).
‘Loveless’ is too well made and performed to ignore. The movie works as intended. The question is whether or not you actually want to be pulled along by this misery train all the way to the deliberately unsatisfying climax. If so, best of luck.