An upscale apartment in one of Moscow’s uglier neighborhoods is on the market: Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexei Rozin) are at the final stage of divorce and have already arranged new lives with new partners. They can’t wait to be done with each other, and neither needs the property; same goes for the only, unwanted child of their failed union, Alyosha, about twelve years old. After eavesdropping on another hateful, screaming fight, in which the word orphanage is brought up, the boy disappears, likely run away, possibly kidnapped.
There are many directions a story can take from a premise like this. A Hollywood drama would see the bitter spouses bonding, perhaps achieving a reunion, or it would turn into a thriller (which is, actually, one of the unfulfilled promises of Loveless). In a European art film, which of course is Andrei Zvyagintsev’s main frame of reference, characters would reckon with their lives and deal with existential horror. Neither thing happens in Loveless; in fact, it doesn’t take any direction at all. Zvyagintsev’s cinema has always been governed by Murphy’s law as much as by laws of physics, perhaps even more so—whatever event that occurs in them is not good, but in his new film there are very few events to speak of. A cynical officer informs the parents that the police are overworked and unlikely to solve the case. They seek help from a volunteer search group. No luck. The main plotline is punctuated by Boris and Zhenya’s going on about their lives—eating out, grocery shopping, checking social media (an activity that Zvyagintsev seems somewhat fixated on). Everything is bad in a major way already, there's not much farther you can get from here. A monumental portrayal of an unredeemable spiritual decadence, Loveless is encapsulated in the above-mentioned fight scene, a perfect picture of egotism, pettiness and anger; the two hours that follow do little to elaborate or explicate but only add more details to create a grander canvas of a universal moral failing. The root of evil remains unknown, as criticisms are pointed indiscriminately at whatever gets in the auteur’s way: the bourgeoisie, working class, corporate culture, families, religion, state propaganda, beauty industry, and Instagram, of course, that urgent threat of modern life.
Misanthropy is a valid creative strategy, often a productive one, but Zvyagintsev does not display the self-loathing, however indulgent, of Michel Houellebecq, whose disdain of humanity is consistent and thus does not exclude the author himself; or the irony and self-awareness of Lars von Trier; or the strong political opinions of Catherine Breillat; or the tragic, apocalyptic defeatism of Béla Tarr. His misanthropy is of an arrogant, self-aggrandizing variety, and chances are that the Russian director’s unflinching didacticism will yield an Oscar (that can happen to Loveless a few weeks from now) and sooner or later a Palme d’Or: both Cannes and the Academy tend to favor heavy-handed, conservative preaching, as Michael Haneke can attest. In addition to that, the utmost importance of Zvyagintsev’s ideas is corroborated by all possible formal means. Evgeniy Galperin’s music is accordingly ominous. The very talented cinematographer Mikhail Krichman expertly frames wide shots of dreary high-rises and improbable interiors. Designs are overstated and as abstract as the characters: Zhenya and Alyosha seem to live inside an Ikea catalog while Zhenya’s monster of a mother inhabits a village wreck that borders on a cabin-in-the-woods horror cliché. There are some literary touches, too, such as the shared family name of the two antiheroes, Sleptsov—Russian for “blind”: yes, seriously.
Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage is claimed to be a source of inspiration for Loveless, in line with Zvyagintsev’s usual reverence to classical modernist cinema, but there’s little in common between the two filmmakers aside from their interest in matrimonial relationships. Try to imagine a Bergman film that exudes as much contempt to the characters as Zvyagintsev’s does. Or a Bergman film that makes sweeping statements about morals of a society as a whole. Or, indeed, a Bergman film that’s called “Loveless.” As if the title’s blatant unsubtlety wasn’t enough, the screenwriter Oleg Negin makes an additional effort to make sure that the moral of the story won’t go unregistered: at some point Zhenya’s new partner delivers a soliloquy about how “one cannot live in lovelessness”: an aphorism worthy of an inspirational-quote-of-the-day Twitter account. Having mastered the international art film vernacular, Zvyagintsev does not overcomplicate his delivery, in dialogue or other formal choices—his points come in simple sentences, like in the excerpt from a Russian grammar textbook invented by Nabokov: “Oak is a tree. Rose is a flower. Deer is an animal. Sparrow is a bird. Russia is our homeland. Death is inevitable.”
Zvyagintsev began his directorial career with two films that were deliberately detached from any specific time or place; reportedly he even planned to shoot his sophomore The Banishment (2007) in Esperanto. This cinema of the azure breadbox (an actual prop from Banishment that critic Roman Volobuev used to mock the director’s penchant to inappropriately overwrought design) was bound to produce more abstract parables about Man, Woman, Child and Life until the director seemingly changed his course in Elena (2011): the characters of that film inhabited recognizable Moscow neighborhoods and made transactions in Russian rubles. Elena still remains Zvyagintsev’s strongest work—but it became evident with his later films that not much changed overall, as Man, Woman and Child did not at all disappear but merely moved to a different setting, while Zvyagintsev stayed in the domain of abstraction alone with his ideas. As a consequence, a new generalizing concept was introduced in Leviathan (2014) and Loveless: the capital-letter Family together with other Characters are now Country. While in Leviathan Russia resembled the Joycean sow that eats her farrow, in Loveless it is cold and indifferent; a “dying marriage producing delinquent offspring” as Daniel Kasman put it on these very pages.
Russia’s most famous cinematic export of this decade, Zvyagintsev is more successful abroad than in his own country where he is far from a consensus figure. His work generates controversy not just among Russian conservatives—the Culture Minister Vladimir Medinskiy infamously complained that Leviathan depicted Russia as a “petty piece of shit”—but on the other, Zvyagintsev’s own side of the aisle as well. Whatever is your politics, in Leviathan and Loveless, the director hands down generalizations of Russia, and like any generalization of this scope, those are borderline offensive in their simplifying—which is why no one should make them, and indeed, few do. Zvyagintsev’s Russia doesn’t really look like the real country, since he treats it much like the made-up metaphorical spaces of his earlier films. English subtitles compare favorably to the artifice of Russian dialogues. Satire is banal, such as Boris’ Christian corporation in Loveless that would be more appropriate in an unfunny comedy sketch on TV. These are nuances that are lost in translation but also are probably not even wanted in the translation. For foreign audiences, Russia is a country that is always in the news but remains obscure, and a film that claims to explain everything in two hours is consequently as welcome as a Lonely Planet guide. Though even just the final, crude allegory of Loveless would probably suffice to make the point—for a good minute, to make sure that the idea sinks in, the director shows Zhenya dressed in an Olympic tracksuit with the word ‘Russia’ in huge letters across her chest, running on a treadmill, moving nowhere. As we know from Through the Looking Glass, you need to run twice as fast to get anywhere, but for Zvyagintsev imitation of running works just fine, so why even bother.