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Loveless in Russia

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Loveless (MA). Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev. Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasileva, Andris Keiss. 127 minutes

Matvey Novikov in Loveless

The defining, gut-punch moment of Russian auteur Zvyagintsev's (The Return, Leviathan) fifth feature comes just a dozen or so minutes in.

By the time it arrives cinematographer Mikhail Krichman has already established a tour-de-force formality that is central to the film's precise and compelling use of place and atmosphere to tell its story; mapping physical, three-dimensional space through angular shifts of his mostly still camera, each frame revealing new details that build upon those established by the previous one.

In this way we discover the front courtyard of a local school and its inhabitants, the ruddy river parkland that spans the distance to a nearby residential estate, and the rooms and hallways of the apartment that Zhenya (Spivak) and her estranged husband Boris (Rozin) are preparing to sell.

Boris has had an affair that has been ongoing for some time; as we are to discover, his much younger mistress Masha (Vasileva) is heavily pregnant with his child. Zhenya, too, has moved on, her lover Anton (Keiss) both older and relatively wealthier.

By this time, too, we know that the couple's young son, Alyosha (Novikov), is quickly becoming collateral damage in this bitterest of separations. Zhenya has described him as being too weepy in a way that is not manly and, when a vicious argument erupts between Zhenya and Boris over custody arrangements, it is not about who gets to keep their son, but who must be stuck with him.

Suddenly, the gut-punch; cut to a new angle, where Alyosha is revealed, silently sobbing, secretly listening to every vile remark about how unwanted he is.


"Loveless reveals one of the grimmest portraits of a failed marriage this reviewer has ever seen on film."


Zhenya and Boris spend the following day and more with their respective lovers. We are with them and so, like them, discover belatedly that Alyosha disappeared shortly after overhearing this screaming match.

As further reinforcement of the extent to which the parents' thoughts are with themselves and not with their son, their next conversation turns into yet another argument when Boris is reluctant to leave work in order to assist Zhenya in the search. For Zhenya's part, the boy has been missing two days before she even noticed.

Loveless reveals one of the grimmest portraits of a failed marriage this reviewer has ever seen on film. Zhengya confesses to her lover Anton that she never loved the traitorous Boris; that their marriage was a mistake, prolonged by the existence of Alyosha, whom she blames. By contrast, she says, she does love Anton (he does not openly reciprocate).

When, during the course of the search for Alyosha, Zhengya and Boris visit Zhengya's reclusive, viperish mother, we see this state of lovelessness is a generational inheritance.

The missing boy persists as negative space in the film, exacerbating rather than ameliorating the lack of connection between his feuding parents.

The couple having enlisted a studious volunteer search and rescue team (the police had dismissed Alyosha's disappearance as a runaway case), Zvyagintsev's film evolves into a forensic procedural that takes in waste-like bushland and dilapidated buildings that provide blunt metaphors for the emptiness and decay that has flourished at the heart of their virulent family dynamic.

A grim and gripping tragedy on this personal level, as a whole Loveless functions also as a metaphor for political life in contemporary Russia. The fatal fracturing of its relationship with its neighbour Ukraine provides a backdrop and, for the degeneration of Zhengya and Boris' marriage and the resultant alienation of their son, a touchstone.

What lessons have been learned? If the deeply cynical coda of Loveless is anything to go by then Zvyagintsev's answer to this question would be: Nothing much.



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Matvey Novikov, Loveless, Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia



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Existing comments

Thanks, Tim, geez, that one cuts deep. You review took me into a Slavic meltdown; that's good writing.

Barry G | 20 April 2018  

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