If a pleasant, uplifting trip to the pictures is what you’re after, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is not the film for you. It’s there in the title: this is a tale of despair and – you’ve guessed it – lovelessness. Don’t let me put you off though. It’s a brilliant film, and has received high acclaim throughout the film industry, even if it was unlikely to please its country of origin. Cannes awarded it the Jury Prize, and it has been nominated as best foreign film in the Oscars, despite its lack of happy ending.
In fact, there’s hardly an ending at all… but that’s the point. We all die, but life goes on, in the sense of that ever-deepening coastal shelf that Larkin describes in This Be The Verse. I was constantly reminded of the opening and closing lines of this famous poem as the film unfolded. Here was a twelve year old boy being truly fucked up by his mum and dad who, now in the messy aftermath of a loveless marriage, should have listened to Larkin: “get out as early as you can and don’t have any kids yourself.”
When the kid goes missing (and who can blame the poor, unloved dolt for doing a runner) it is the tension of ‘will they find him?’ pitched against the tense and ugly relationship of the parents that pulls the film along. By the time we reach this turning-point in the drama, both parents have been portrayed with painful clarity; this is going to be a bumpy ride. Let’s start with the mother.
Maryana Spivak’s character, Zhenya, is a self-obsessed and hateful person. She calls her son a cry-baby, and complains to her beautician (while having her bikini-line waxed – ouch) that Alexey is even starting to smell like his father. Constantly scrolling through social media, while the TV pumps out trash, we see her time and again via reflections… clearly Zvyagintsev is making a point here. This is more than just a portrayal of a broken marriage, or the mores of middle-class Muscovites.
Zhenya’s pursuit of personal pleasure is demonstrated in her new relationship, which itself is centred on sex for its own sake (god forbid she should conceive again) and sumptuous dining out in restaurants where women give phone numbers to strangers and raise toasts to love and selfies. In a post-coital conversation, we learn about the poisonous relationship with her mother – again: that deepening coastal shelf. Zhenya’s love of self and neglect of Alexey results in her not even noticing that he wasn’t at home – because, neither was she.
Through the father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) we see at first a more sympathetic character. His new partner is heavily pregnant. We may hope her condition was not a result of the same mistake Boris made twelve years and nine months ago. Their relationship is more tender and quotidian: they shop for groceries, make love, he throws her an apple while he cooks her favourite food; he re-assures her that he will stay.
His work-life, given his personal circumstances, is a little precarious since the manager of his firm is a fundamentalist Christian who disapproves of divorcés. Eating is, again, a theme as he chats with a colleague over lunch about the risk of his private life being found out. The second time he stands in the lunch-queue, he receives a phone-call to say his son is missing: food is a significant symbol, it seems. But there is another important factor channelled through Boris’s character. Instead of social-media, constant reference to the political commentary on the radio or TV makes an explicit point. The scenario of a selfish, uncaring society is an analogy for a deeper malaise. I’ll leave it to those with more political savvy to draw these threads together, but it’s obvious to see why this film received no financial backing from the state.
When the child goes missing, the disinterested reaction of the police is contrasted with the zeal of a team of volunteers, who set out a plan to find him. “On with the song,” says the coordinator of the search team. As they step up their efforts, he repeats the line, adding, “I mean that figuratively, by the way.” The same could be said of the whole film. Searching an abandoned, derelict building, there at the centre of a large, grey dilapidated room stands a broken and battered piano. If music be the food of love, the song has evidently ended.
This is a bleak, challenging, thought-provoking film that can be viewed on many levels. It’s a striking piece of art, with exceptional cinematography and an intense sound-world – Arvo Pärt’s Silouans Song fits the mood perfectly, while Sleepwalking by Bring Me The Horizon provides a savage match to the protagonists’ bitterness. It has the suspense of a thriller; it’s a biting commentary on a compassionless society, and a brutal attack on a fucked-up world that dares to vote in the likes of Putin and Trump. Uplifting, it isn’t… but go and see it anyway.
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