Icy family drama will make you glad you don’t live in Russia
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
Has anyone ever actually dreamed of being Russian? Of flying off to the Brutalist architecture-bound streets of Kiev? Frolicking in the rasputitsa (“general mud”) of Russian Winter? Living amid the bureaucratic dregs of the former Soviet Union? Someone surely must have, but the nation hardly has the romantic allure of, say, France or the South Seas. If the literature and films of Russia have taught us anything it’s that the Russian people are a hard, cynical lot still living down the legacy of Leninism and inhabiting a particularly bleak, cold chunk of the world.
Loveless—Russia’s official submission for the “Best Foreign Language Film” category at the 90th annual Academy Awards—is, if nothing else, emblematic of its nation. It’s a stark, dark, often beautifully bleak “feelbad” family drama wrapped around the hardened core of a procedural crime thriller. It is, in short, an extraordinarily Russian film.
Our main characters, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are in the midst of a particularly acrimonious divorce. The upwardly mobile couple got married young, grew up, made some money and now, in their 30s, are ready to move on. He’s already shacking up with his pregnant girlfriend. She’s already got an older lover lined up. The only reason they still see each other is because they’re trying to sell off the suburban Moscow apartment they bought. … Oh, and the fact that they have a 12-year-old son together.
Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is almost an afterthought for the couple. A silent, sullen, seemingly friendless moppet caught in the bitter war between his parents, he drifts around in the background of the apartment as they tear into each other. Neither of them seems eager to raise the boy. (“He needs his mother,” insists Boris. “At his age, boys want their father,” counters Zhenya.) Their best idea: Ship the kid off to boarding school and encourage him to join the military when he’s old enough. Ouch. How unfeeling are these two? Zhenya confides to her new partner that she never loved Boris and was “disgusted” at the sight of her newborn son. Her body never even produced milk when he was a baby. Again, ouch. Boris, meanwhile, only seems concerned with how the impending divorce will affect his middle-management desk job. In conversations with coworkers it’s clear he’s employed by a fundamentalist Christian prone to firing employees who do not have spouses and children. According to rumor, one divorced employee actually hired actors to portray his “family” at a Christmas party.
In the wake of a particularly ugly dustup between Zhenya and Boris, young Alyosha vanishes. It takes his parents a full two days to notice that he’s gone. They turn to the police; but as an officer brusquely informs them, missing kids are usually murdered by their parents. If Zhenya and Boris didn’t kill him, well he’ll probably return in a week or two. If they really want to find him, the officer suggests mom and dad contact a volunteer search-and-rescue organization.
The efficient and organized coordinator of the group interviews Zhenya and Boris, quickly pinning them as a couple of absentee parents who know next to nothing about their son. A search is nonetheless organized with Zhenya and Boris dispatched on a particularly painful, dead-end mission to contact Zhenya’s estranged mother. Mom is no prize pig herself. Paranoid and emotionally abusive of her daughter, her presence exposes more of the intergenerational frostbite at the center of Russia’s frigid heart.
Novisibirsk-born writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev has gone down this road of grim realism before with 2014’s Oscar-nominated Leviathan. Trading the gray, stoney shores of rural Russia for the inky blue apartment blocks of suburban Moscow, Zvyagintsev still finds space to wax existential on the slow corrosion of modern Mother Russia. Gone are the incompetent apparatchiks of the Gorbachev era. In their place are the opportunistic money-grabbers of the Putin era.
Scouring the countryside—ticking off abandoned schools, Soviet-era sports clubs and other crumbling facades of recent Russian history looking for their missing son—the squabbling couple lead viewers on a tour of their country’s lineage of failure and abandonment. As a crash course on the causes and consequences of suffering, of the social ills that surround and support them, Loveless does its job with a certain brutal honesty. The biggest stumbling block to viewers, however, may be the collection of awful, unsympathetic newbie-bougie characters at the core of it all. Loveless is fully committed to excoriating Russia’s newly minted middle class—while still implicating the generations that came before it. Riveting as this dark dive may be, it’s not exactly a fun trip. Like a winter night in Siberia, it’s certainly not warm or brief or at all subtle in its approach.