Andrey Zvyagintsev's film is a masterful work but a terrible date movie.
Years ago, when our children were smaller, my wife and I used to share a dark joke about the 'reverse custody battle.' It went like so: In the event of our marriage falling apart, we would each try to convince the divorce court that the other party was more fit for the full-time custody of the kids, so as to land the prize of being the far-less-stressed weekend parent.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless takes this notion much further than I would ever have thought possible. Here he has crafted a tenebrous procedural of a crumbled marriage and a missing child: A situation that neither husband or wife desires to properly engage with.
Zhenya and Boris are in their late thirties, and are in the process of going their separate ways. They each have a new partner, him a pregnant young girlfriend, her an older, wealthy and cultured man. They each, in theory, have new life planned with the promise of more happiness than their previous decade in a foolish marriage of naive convenience. Both are anxious to settle the details of separation, the selling of their apartment, splitting of stuff, and custody of their young son Aloysha. Each can barely stand the sight of the other in the process of handling such things. Instead they bury themselves in the glowing screens of their mobile phones and day to day routine.
After a nasty verbal fight between his parents, in which the 'reverse custody battle' scenario is practically discussed, Alyosha overhears and picks up on the blunt 'unwantedness' from another room. His meticulously revealed reaction shot is perhaps the most effective single moment of horror I have witnessed in the cinema this year. The image of the boy's face is one that lingers, even as the boy himself disappears.
Opening with chilly scenes of nature and wild-life sounds contained in a suburb of Moscow, the shot hard-cuts to a dilapidated schoolyard flying the Russian flag. The shot hangs on this scene for a longer than expected duration before children spilling out at the end of the day. Young Alyosha takes the long way home from school by himself, playing with a discarded strip of police-caution tape. The camera ominously lingers upon the slightly burned tree-stump from where the the tape was gathered. It plays almost like a Micheal Haneke film, and the tone is clear that an ominous future is in the cards.
The bulk of the film is a 'missing person' investigation with two egregiously callow people who barely want their child to be found. Societal pressures and expectations -- what they call 'keeping up appearances' -- are, of course, in play. Even before his son goes missing, Boris was stressed at work that his orthodox Christian boss is going to fire him if he discovers the upcoming divorce. He hopes to set up a new, acceptable nuclear-family set of appearances with his current woman. Zhenya struggles with, 'what will people think?' as she retreats to the creature-comforts of her new boyfriend, and scolds Boris' shortcomings while she endures his presence in the details of the investigation.
The relationship dynamic of this story is what makes a truly fascinating prism to look at what is a common enough plot in popular movies, finding the mysteriously missing child. I do not recall it ever having been told from the point of view of parents that are not gung-ho about answers, or that the child is profoundly unwanted. A crisis of this nature is supposed to make a couple forget their domestic problems and come together. Here, it causes further alienation, and invites the audience to pass judgement. Don't expect a Hollywood remake any time soon. (Albeit, this is a moot point, as a Zvyagintsev film is a quintessential film experience.)
Scenes involving the authorities -- both of the expected clunky bureaucractic kind, but also a surprisingly equipped and able volunteer group -- following up leads offer some interesting photography: an abandoned tenement building deep in the forest, and, all too briefly, a massive dilapidated dish antenne-station from the Soviet space programme. And scenes involving false leads, a child picked up matching Alyosha's description, or a body to be identified, play out with complex and original emotional resonances.
An event in a couples' life as seismic as this ripples outward and involves extended family members. The results here are equally disturbing, particularly an encounter involving Zhenya's mother at the suggestion that she is possibly hiding the child. In the end, the film offers no easy answers, or even characters to root for; the state is overly bureaucratic in its handling of its case, and it falls on a very resourceful and enthusiastic group of volunteers to help look, but the effort is often uncomfortable when the good samaritans suspect that the parents do not care too much.
Loveless also offers an effective examination of specific social mores of Russia: How pressures of church, work, and family intersect in the twenty-first century. People shop, and take selfies for a short term spiritual band-aid, rather than deeper, or fulfilling long-term connections. The church dictates what the 'ideal set of life circumstances' should look like. A stable career and a nice car, and working towards upgrading to a nicer condo are chief secular pursuits. Techology exacerbates the problem instead of offering solutions.
Andrey Zvyagintsev's deservedly lauded Leviathan (arguably the best film of 2014) may be larger in scope, with its superlative Northern Russia cinematography, and its church and state and real estate revisionism on the Book of Job. However, Loveless is as flush with ideas of what Russia has become, her cloudy nature in this new century. These observations are integrated into the procedural aspects in subtle and interesting ways, and visualized with an impeccable eye for the Russian middle class. Such a specific cultural examination nevertheless feels like it gets at universal truths in this brave new century of global late-stage capitalism and techologically mitigated emotional experiences.
I would be remiss if I did not point out, that while unquestionably a master-work, Loveless is most certainly a terrible date movie for that couple in the idealistic dreaming-stage of their relationship. If I were to watch the film again, this time with my wife, it would make our 'reverse custody' schtick from a decade ago feel all the more darker.
Review originally published during the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017. The film will open in select theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, February 16, via Sony Pictures Classics.