Pick and watch a random film from the last year and there’s a high degree of chance you may wonder why it was made at all: Innocuous images, redundant drama, irreverent cutting. Such (and so often) superfluous moviemaking is one of the best arguments for director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who makes imposingly apparent from the first moments that his movies are important.
The Russian filmmaker returns to the competition of the Cannes Film Festival with Loveless, a film as grim and plodding as its title. Where Zvyagintsev’s last picture, the Best Screenplay winner in 2014’s Cannes, Leviathan, centered around the politics of a land quarrel over a house in a small town (possibly an allegory for Russia), Loveless is centered in the Moscow apartment housing the dying marriage of Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Splvak). Entering their yuppie flat flinging vitriol of hate at each other as Zhenya drinks wine and checks her phone (Boris secretly checks hers, too, but finds the password changed), their son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) hears it all, heaving quiet cries, and decides to leave the well-appointed apartment. Zvyagintsev shoots this crisis, as he does all of Loveless, in images broad and thick, geometrically placed just-so, the camera most often at a distance from its subject—all the better so that it may track into a scene slowly, when importance must deepen. The overall effect is of notable but forced grandness. This small, cynical story has large scope—Russia as a corrosive, dying marriage producing delinquent offspring—and the spaces in which it takes place (rich flats, the boy’s school, a ruined complex, a forest) fill the canvas with bold, expansive reach. Zvyagintsev films the world large, however modest the story, and this film world impresses upon those within, as well as us observers, its fulsome, innate and unsubtle monumentality.
“Lovelessness” is the quality ascribed to Zhenya’s upbringing by her older, wealthier lover to explain her character, one that can only appear to us as cruel. The passively unpleasant and blank-faced Boris, by no means remarkable, seems to have instigated the discord by cheating and impregnating his lover, but Zhenya is unsparingly shown as awful, as is her mother. Neither parent wants Alyosha in the divorce, a brutal early indication of the morals supposedly skewered by the movie, but one like so many in Loveless delivered with the inevitable drag of a plunging anchor. The film shifts from the couple's acrid but decadent lives punctuated by bitter spats and absurd work—shown with satiric realism—at the revelation that Alyosha is gone. Gone, run away? Gone, been kidnapped? Gone, on a secret online rendezvous, perhaps to his old “Stalin-in-a-dress” grandmother? The thick-voiced policeman calmly informs the couple that the government’s work will lag and amount to nothing with all the red tape and bureaucracy, and recommends they secure a non-profit group to track down their boy.
At this point in the long slog, Loveless avoids the scarce hope of drawing energy and inspiration from genre cinema, and instead the desolate marriage allegory turns into a dour search touring dilapidation, empty high rise stairwells, crumbling buildings, frightful morgues, urban indifference and fruitless efforts. On radios and television, the apocalypse is predicted and the war in the Ukraine rages on. To relax, Zhenya dons a red tracksuit with ‘Russia’ stitched across it, and jogs in place on a treadmill. Boris tries to start a new family with a younger, blonder woman. Nothing seems to change, and it’s implied that all this is keenly realized and of utmost meaning.