Structurally, Loveless unfolds as a crime thriller. However, it is certainly more than that. Apart from being an incisive exploration of the Russian society today, it is also a profoundly difficult inner journey into the state of abandonment and rejection.
Loveless is initially the portrait of a failed marriage in its final stages. A married couple, Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) share the flat but live in total estrangement and constantly fight with each other. From their dialogues, it is clear that they hate and despise each other. They also fight over who has to keep their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) , after they divorce. As they have already found new partners for themselves at this stage and Boris’ new girlfriend is pregnant with his another child, none of them actually wants to. They seem to be throwing this issue of custody over their child as a ping-pong across the table, while trading insults along the way. One soon realises that the boy is rather an annoying nuisance, an obstacle to their future plans. Boris, who seems to be working in a an architectural bureau where they construct Orthodox Churches and whose boss is a fundamentalist Orthodox Christian, keeps up appearances hiding indifference towards his son behind the mask of concern and care. Still, his interest is purely pharisaic: he is only concerned about keeping his job, for his boss only keeps married men in his employment. Finally, Zhenya explodes and points out that she has never wanted the child anyway and suggests that Alyosha would do well in a boarding school and later in the army. As Zhenya is the most blunt, direct and outspoken in this duo, we first tend to empathise with Boris. However, later it emerges that he is a manipulative hypocrite, who is no less to blame for the failure of this marriage.
Meanwhile, Alyosha, a quiet, shy and lonely 12-year-old boy, happens to overhear this ugly argument, and we see him in close-up with his hand over open mouth stifling an agonised cry as he is silently weeping in anguish over the rejection and betrayal by his own parents. It is palpable how abandoned and forsaken he feels. Practically, an orphan with living parents. His situation is also somehow reminiscent of another Russian film Bury me Behind the Baseboard (2009).
The next day at breakfast Zhenya notices the sunken spirits of her son, asking if he is Ok. However, these are not the acts of motherly care. Her tone is cold, rejecting and unloving. Apparently, Zhenya hates Boris so much that she projects these feelings onto Alyosha. She is just annoyed that he may thwart her plans, and wishes him leave for school as soon as possible, so that she could go to the beauty salon and make herself ready for a date. Refusing to eat and waving off a furtive tear, the boy then grabs his school backpack and dashes off down the stairs. This sequence is heartbreaking, for it is the last time we see Alyosha in the film.
At this stage, Zhenya and Boris are so carried away with their lovers, that they notice the boy has vanished only on the second day of his absence. Zhenya is the first to feel worried and call the police despite Boris’ reluctance: he is afraid this might become known to his employer. The police officials seem to be unconcerned and the reporting officer informs her that most ‘runaways’ come back after ‘ten days at most’, so they will not be taking any actions. However, he recommends to call a local volunteer search-and-rescue squad Liza Alert, who seem to be ready to search for Alyosha to the furthest bounds. Even when their son disappears, the loss does not bring the spouses together: each of them stays alienated in their own quest for happiness, full of hate and resentment for the other.
The search for Alyosha begins at Zhenya’s mother’s house. As they are driving to see her mother, Zhenya asks Boris: ” How did this all happen that you told me about love and happiness but it all ended up in pain and disappointment? In the impenetrable dark of hopelessness? I have never loved you, just could not live with her (meaning her mother).” This is when we start getting the whole picture. It was Boris who needed a family(perhaps, in order to get his job where an Orthodox boss demands that everyone should be married and with a family). As the couple arrives, the old woman (Natalya Potapova), or”Stalin-in the- skirt”, as Boris names her, is none too happy to see them and be woken up after dark. She seems to have little love for her daughter and even less for her grandson Alyosha, stating he should have been aborted. It also transpires why Zhenya, who has grown up in the dreary atmosphere of this lovelessnes, is so cold and unloving. She has perhaps made the best she could of what she was born with. The lack of love becomes a self-perpetuating trauma, passed down through generations.
We also seem to be getting more information about Boris at this stage. His firm seems to operate along the same lines as the Russian Orthodox Church where no man can get ordained as a priest before they get married. Well, they can, but then they will have to stay a monk and abandon the hope of having a family. This creates an urgency among the young candidates for priesthood to quickly find a wife and get ordained, The film never states that this is exactly what had happened to Boris, but there are many hints to that: Zhenya reproaches her husband for pressurising her into having a child and marrying him against her wishes. She also talks with resentment about Boris’ job, from which we may conclude that he had married Zhenya, so that he could get employed by his firm. In this case, this makes sense of all Zhenya’s embittered tirades. And then she finally makes an uncouth attempt at revenge: “Have you not impregnated a young fool and dragged her into your personal hell? Sure, in 10- 12 years, you will do this hocus-pocus again. Poor girl, I even feel pity for her. You have spoilt my whole life, do you realise this?” Then she concludes that she had met a good person who only needs her for herself and goes for the jugular by stating that it was she who used Boris in this relationship, because she wished to move away from her unloving mother. At that point Boris throws her out of the car in the middle of nowhere. It is perhaps, at this point that one may start wonder, if it would be better for the boy if he’s never found. A child’s very existence and well-being is dependent on the presence and care of his parents and the fact of having a home. Here, the whole reality of boy’s life is ruined overnight: the home of the family will soon be sold (and indeed, at the end we face the scene when the boy’s personal things are being taken down, tearing apart the last sense of home and destroying the traces of the child’s existence.
One cannot but admire how Zvyagintsev can express so much with so little: the dialogues in this film are not many, but they are always incisive and insightful, and so visceral at the same time. The both protagonists in the film are revolting: shallow, egoistic, superficial, consumerist in their attitudes to love, even vile… And yet, one can sense some sympathy for them throughout the film. The sympathy with their traumas, helplessness, despair… It is also, perhaps interesting to point out that issue of the divorce continues as a leitmotif through numerous Zvyagintsev’s films: the Return, the Banished, the Leviathan, Elena. Perhaps, the film-director has his own scars: at the recent Q&A session at the BFI Zvyagintsev made a confession that his parents divorced when he was a child, and his mother was raising him up on her own. The film has this visceral quality of a still festering wound which takes a lifetime to heal. In this sense, it also forces us to encounter once again our personal childhood traumas of rejection and abandonment.
The film is extremely well-directed, with its slowly travelling camera and the atmospheric shots. However, one realises that they are mesmerising mostly when looking at the production stills: otherwise, they do not call attention to themselves. Zvyagintsev has a masterful command of tone (one simply cannot escape comparing winter scenes and images of children playing in the snow with Dutch paintings or the Hunters in the Snow by Brueghel). The scenes of searching for Alyosha in the dilapidated building (perhaps one of these Pioneer Palaces or Sports Palaces, ubiquitous in the Soviet times) are reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker with operator’s unhurried, lingering movement. The film is also reminiscent of Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage, which is not surprising, as Loveless was first intended as a remake of Bergman’s masterpiece but then evolved into an independent film. Or rather, a compelling film with an extreme poetic power, where the visual narrative is indivisible from the plot, with the brilliant camera-work by the operator Mikhail Krichman and music by Evgeni Galperin and Aarvo Paert.
If first, there was some hope in the film, it evaporates towards the end. Every sequence becomes saturated with an ever-increasing sense of helplessness and despair. In the closing scenes we observe Boris at his girlfriend’s flat. We do not know if he lost his job or not. We see his newborn son playing alone, demanding for his father’s attention while Boris watches TV with an expressionless face. Annoyed by this, the man abruptly picks up the child and carries him off to another room. No, not to play together but to drop him so roughly and unceremoniously into his cot, that the child starts crying bitterly and is calling for his mother. And even Boris’ new girlfriend looks out of colours and not too happy. Zhenya’s bitter prophecy that he would never change becomes a self-fulfilling doom. The situation has changed, the partner has changed, there is a new child, a new flat, a new environment — but not the newly acquired ability to love.
As this film, obliquely points to Christian values, let us pick up a story about Abba Macarios the Great from Apophthegmata Patrum. It narrates about the hermit’s encounter with a skull of a dead man describing the torments of hell. Among the descriptions of hellish fires one comes across this remarkable phrase:”It is not possible to see anyone face to face, but the face of one is fixed to the back of another”, In other words, Hell is the state where personal encounter is impossible, or a situation of an extreme depersonalisation. In the same manner, the great Russian writer F. Dostoevsky was defined hell as an inborn inability to love.
Boris returns to his TV screen and continues to watch the news. In the next frame we see Zhenya and her new partner, a wealthy widower, in front of the TV. They are watching the same news programme. Their infatuation seems to have long gone, the man stares indifferently into the TV screen while Zhenya sullenly checks her phone. Have they been having a fight or have they just grown estranged? The disconnection between them is palpable. Zhenya stands up and goes to the balcony. She starts doing her jogging on a running machine, but stops half-way, exhausted, barren, disappointed, with this silent question in her eyes: what has gone wrong and why is she locked into a loveless trap again? She wears a tracksuit with “Russia” across her chest. This simple direct close-up becomes a final metaphor for the broken state of the whole nation devoid of empathy, where being unloved is akin to a curse passed from the older generation to the young.
The atmosphere of cold and emotional estrangement then culminates in the concluding images of icy, grey, cold winter. And then the camera travels past the snow-clad tree and the red-and-white construction ribbon blown by the wind. Together with faded posters with Alyosha’s photographs these are the only reminders of his existence. No searches, no checks in the hospitals or morgues yielded any results. However, the boy had been lost already before he went missing. Rejection kills. As the camera slides across the majestic snowy silence of the park, the narrative takes on a poetic, metaphysical, but worrying quality, much akin to Antonioni’s L’Avventura. In the same way, Loveless is not just a narrative about a divorcing couple or an institutional failure: it is an indictment of the dysfunctional society, which then expands into an existential meditation on a human condition in general.