Russian co-writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s films are an intense, even intimidating lot (Leviathan, Elena, The Banishment, The Return), and his latest is no different, with an intimate and unflinchingly emotional edge and very nearly no humour.
Depending upon how you want to read it, this Russian/French/German/Belgian/American co-production can work two ways: either it’s a seriously harsh character piece that owes something to Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage or, if you like, it’s a fairly devastating critique of contemporary Russian life, now that such a thing is possible without the filmmaker being dragged off to a gulag.
In a grey, wintry Moscow back in 2012 a married couple are divorcing in vicious style, with Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) arguing incessantly and within earshot of their 12 year old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov, whose tears are awfully real). One morning after a particularly horrible shouting match, we see Alyosha grab his schoolbag and leave without saying goodbye (Boris is already on his way to work and Zhenya is fiddling with her phone), and then there’s a long section where, that evening, both parents spend intimate time with their new partners, and we wonder who’s looking after their son. And do they really care?
Of course they do (sort of), even though it takes a while for them to realise that Alyosha has run away, and when they briefly stop verbally abusing each other the police are called in and there’s an almost blackly comic bit where the first officer says that it’s probably not a murder case in a ridiculously grim monotone. Zhenya and Boris are forced to spend time with each other, which leads to crueller and crueller arguments, and they’re even compelled to make a three-hour trip to check that the kid isn’t hiding at the secluded house of Zhenya’s estranged mother, who’s poisonous and paranoid in one scene that might seem over-the-top but, perhaps, adds further to the terrible satire at work (she’s ‘Mother Russia’ – get it?).
There’s certainly some material here that could enrage feminists, as Zhenya is shown to be vain (she badmouths Boris while getting a wax), negligent (she doesn’t check on Alyosha after returning home late after an evening with new partner Anton) and really nasty (in a confronting post-coital scene she tells Anton that her son essentially ruined her life). But note that she’s also the one who first realises that the kid is gone and whose grief is the most vocal, as Boris’ fear and pain is almost agonisingly repressed.
And how damn loveless can you get? Zhenya and Boris hate each other; both are strangers to their son and he’s in turn driven away by their callousness; Zhenya hates her mother and her mother hates her right back; Zhenya hates Boris’ younger, pregnant partner without having met her; and Zvyagintsev hates his characters and, it seems, hates Russia too.
Rated MA. Loveless is in cinemas now.