This highly anticipated drama from one of Russia’s best directors, Andrey Zvyagintsev (director of“Leviathan,” the winner of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival’s best screenplay) does not disappoint. “Loveless” is a bleak story about flawed characters in a disintegrating society. It is a heartbreaking film focusing on a 12-year-old boy caught between two parents who do not want custody of him. Divorce’s effect may never have been shown in such a brutal way.
Russia is in the throes of invading the Ukraine – their society is falling apart – and this little family of three is dissolving at the same time. Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) overhears a ferocious argument between his parents. The wife, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), is bitter and tells her husband, Boris (Alexey Rozin), that she never loved him or their child (he should never have been born!). She wants to send him away to a boarding school until it’s time for him to go into the army. The father doesn’t want him either, but believes he should be with his mother. In their self-absorption, they don’t realize that Alyosha has heard every word of this devastating fight. The shot of their son’s soul-wrenching sobs behind his door is one I will never forget. It is a haunting and devastating scene.
Meanwhile, they are both starting new relationships which are more loving than their marital one, but there are problems. He has hidden from his girlfriend (who is very pregnant) that he has a child (and possibly that he isn’t divorced yet). The mother confesses to her new, wealthy lover that she never loved her child and could never produce milk to feed him. She asks him jokingly if he thinks she is a monster. “A beautiful monster,” he responds.
When Aloysha goes missing, the police show no empathy in this cold Russian landscape: Come back in a week; he is probably a runaway, and we have too much paperwork anyway. The parents enlist volunteers who do a massive search for their child–the view of the orange jackets against the white fields is spectacular. The parents get a tip that their son may have gone to an abandoned building, which is a perfect metaphor for the state of their marriage: a beautiful building that once may have held love and is now in a state of horrible decay.
The mystery of Aloysha’s disappearance takes over the second half of the film. The music is ominous and follows the sadness of the search. There is a useless trek to visit the grandmother of the child, but the mystery of how cold-hearted his mother appears is solved. The grandmother is a nasty, spiteful woman and fits Boris’ description of her: “Stalin in heels.”
We may never know what actually happened to Aloysha, but we do see the couple several years later. The happiness they sought still seems elusive. Boris has a new son but takes no delight in him. Zhenya is seen in her new, sterile, upscale apartment with her lover, joylessly on her treadmill. The lover had said that you can’t live without love. This grim story underscores this truth.
“Loveless” deservedly won the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Russia has submitted this film for Academy Award consideration in the Foreign Language Film category. It’s a great film but very depressing. If you are looking to be uplifted, this is not that film!