Loveless 5 star movie review: 'A sorry tale of marital breakdown and a grim masterpiece'
Loveless, (No Cert, IFI, 128mins) *****
Andrey Zvyagintsev is perhaps the most important film-maker working in Russia today. He's certainly the most talented, and in recent years the dark lyricism of early works like The Return and The Banishment has given way to more overtly political fables. In Elena, a wonderfully handled 2011 movie, the story of a working-class woman who has married a wealthy, older man but can't quite get clear of poverty's orbit shone a spotlight on the iniquity of contemporary Russian society.
The authorities were not amused by Elena, and still less so by Leviathan (2014), a powerhouse of a drama that used a land dispute in a bleak town on the Barents Sea to paint a grim picture of a country mired in dysfunction. In it, a handyman who lives in a quaint wooden house by the sea finds that the little man counts for nothing when the local mayor decides he wants to buy the site and build a huge hotel on it. Leviathan was an equal opportunities polemic that painted all of Russia's sacred cows in an unflattering light, from a rather fascist-sounding Orthodox priest to dodgy cops and the amoral and self-serving local politician, who had a portrait of Vladimir Putin hanging above his desk.
Denounced by the church, the Minister of Culture and various nationalist politicians for bringing "shame" on the Russian state, Mr Zvyagintsev and his producer Alexander Rodnyansky have made Loveless without any state money, which is perhaps just as well because they'd probably have been asked to give it back.
Because Loveless, a sorry tale of marital breakdown, evokes a system bereft of structure or purpose, and a society ethically adrift. It's a grim masterpiece.
Though they still live together in a high-rise apartment on the outskirts of Moscow, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) loathe the sight of one another, and can't wait to get divorced. He's taken up with a younger woman who's now pregnant, while she's intent on living the high life with her wealthy, older lover. The only impediment to their plans is Alexey (Matvey Novikov), their shy and lonely 12-year-old son. One night, while Boris and Zhenya are arguing bitterly not over who gets custody of Alexey but who's going to get stuck with him, the boy overhears, and howls silently in the darkness as he comprehends that he is unloved.
The next day, he doesn't come home from school, and at first his parents don't even notice. Zhenya spends the afternoon in a beauty parlour readying herself for her cash cow lover, while Boris worries aloud about how his ultra-religious boss is going to react when he finds out he's getting divorced. The couple's crass materialism and staggering solipsism leads one to wonder if either of them are actually capable of love. Boris wonders too, and at one points admits that he's "never loved anyone - only my mother when I was little, and she's such an idiot".
They might wish their son would just disappear, but even they have the humanity to look shell-shocked when he actually does. Policemen turn up to talk to them, world-weary functionaries who dispense hard facts rather than reassurances, and are overstretched in dealing with an epidemic of unsolved child and juvenile disappearances. Street posters go up, and a small army of volunteers comb the nearby parks and forests, but as the boy's absence lengthens, Boris and Zhenya are forced to deal with the fact that he may never return.
We discover that they only married when Zhenya got pregnant with Alexey, and would never have stayed together otherwise, and like Ingmar Bergman's Scenes from A Marriage, Andrey Zvyagintsev's film unblinkingly explores what happens to a relationship after love leaves. But their problems do not explain or excuse their profound indifference to their child, except perhaps that he's the living embodiment of their unhappiness.