Written by Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev
Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Zhenya and Boris are in the final days of their acidic and hateful marriage. When they are forced to be around each other in their Moscow apartment, they fill the bitter silence with mouthfuls of venom spewed at each other. One thing that is agreed upon is that their twelve-year-old son Alyosha is going to be sent to a “boarding school” that will primarily act as an orphanage. Zhenya wants to move on with to her new life with an older, wealthy and established man while Boris has already gotten his twenty-something girlfriend pregnant. Alyosha is destined to be forgotten. One morning, Zhenya discovers that their son hasn’t been to school in two days and appears to have not been in the apartment during that time either. They realize he is missing and contact authorities. The subsequent search forces these two hate-filled people to spend hours together, but don’t expect a reconciliation.
I just recently finished reading Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. The epilogue of the book makes clear the systematic harshening the Putin regime has inflicted on its people. An anecdote is related where a Moscow woman who owned a small business woke up one morning to find the building where she leased space wholly demolished. This happened to a total of 97 buildings in that city during the night with the government giving the excuse that the building owners “did not have their papers in order.” The sidewalks of Moscow have been completely torn out and replaced for three consecutive years, replaced with tiles that intentionally glaze over with ice and become difficult to cross. The layout of many streets have been redesigned and left in various states of disrepair, some former cross streets suddenly becoming dead ends overnight. The intent of all of this is to perpetuate a mindset of uncertainty and fear. If one cannot navigate their home, then how could they ever hope to navigate a despotic political system?
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev is not cherished by the Russian government. His previous film Leviathan drew the ire of Putin and so no government arts funding was offered up. Instead, Zvyagintsev procured international financing and made Loveless anyway. He is deeply concerned with the total lack of empathy fostered in contemporary Russia. It could be argued that empathy has always had a hard time in Russian society, but for the purposes of this film, Zvyagintsev is examining it in a modern context, in a post-Yeltsin, Putin context. He intends for his two lead characters to be profoundly unsympathetic but not so gross in their behaviors that we cannot connect with them. If a film audience only ever allows themselves to feel a connection with positive, constructive characters, then they are not honest about their human nature.
It is entirely understandable to be at the frayed edges of a relationship and want to drag them down in the mud with you on the way down. It’s not a right way to live, but it is a behavior that is very natural to humanity. It is reasonable to want to start a new life and experience that nostalgic freshness that a burgeoning relationship can bring. Are Zhenya and Boris unrealistic in their expectations for their new partners? Oh most, definitely and we see that as the film slowly spirals to its conclusion. Zhenya and Boris are so entirely ordinary, and that is what makes Loveless cut so deeply. These are not exaggerated, grotesque characters. These people could be us if life got bad enough.
In Soviet Russia, the government worked to erase the lines between public and private space. Everything was mostly open which led to societal doublespeak, the unspoken agreement to lie on each other’s behalf. In Putin’s Russian, left-wing authoritarianism has become right wing, in that the seclusion of the individual is paramount. People uniting under a banner of dissent is problematic so every day people must view those around them as potential enemies and spies. We see this throughout Loveless in the way Zhenya and Boris speak to each other, the way Zhenya’s mother has become a paranoiac enclosing herself behind layers of shoddy metal fencing, and in the way Boris is worried his Orthodox boss will fire him if he learns of his divorce. Everyone is Loveless is aggressive and always angry, with few moments of genuine affection that the audience can be sure will not be permanent.
Loveless tells a story like any sort of police procedural, but as I watched, I became increasingly convinced that Alyosha was never going to be found. The cops infer that this is a situation see so often they won’t even put any departmental manpower on the case. Instead, they suggest a citizen volunteer search and rescue group. The volunteers appear very professional in their duties but lack just as much passion about the case as the police. Every potential lead and there are very few, lead nowhere. The camera keeps focusing on the icy chill of winter outside each window, knowing that this child is possibly succumbing to the elements as the clock ticks. There is a single moment of genuine emotional outburst in the entire picture and what truly cements Loveless as a film of importance and power is the way all of that emotion is dashed entirely and unresolved in the movie’s epilogue. Nothing changes. People stay cold, they refuse to genuinely care about each other. Life goes on.