Loveless  (2017)    Sony Pictures Classics/Drama    RT: 128 minutes    Rated R (strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language, a brief disturbing image)    Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev    Screenplay: Oleg Negin and Andrey Zvyagintsev    Music: Evgueni and Sacha Galperine    Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman    Release date: March 2, 2018 (Philadelphia, PA)    Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasileva, Andris Keyshs, Aleksey Fateev, Sergey Borisov, Nataliya Potapova.      Spoken in Russian with English subtitles



 One of the most telling scenes in the Russian import Loveless, one of this year’s Best Foreign Film nominees, occurs in the first half. A woman comes home late after a night out (then in) with her boyfriend. She goes straight to her room and to bed. She looks at her smartphone for a moment before setting it aside and going to sleep. In this scene, what she does isn’t as important as what she doesn’t do. She doesn’t check on her son to make sure he’s safe and sound in his bed. Ideally, this should be the first thing a parent does upon arriving home at a late hour. If she had checked, she would have realized sooner that he’s missing. Instead, she doesn’t become aware of this until his school calls to inform her that he’s been absent for two days. So much for that Parent of the Year award.

 Loveless posterThe scene I just described cuts right to the heart of Loveless, a brilliant drama from writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan). It centers on a family that doesn’t love each other. Boris (Rozin, Leviathan) and Zhenya (Spivak) are in the middle of an acrimonious divorce. Actually, that’s something of an understatement; they despise each other. They can’t even be in the same room with each other without fighting. The main point of contention is their twelve-year-old son Alyosha (Novikov). Neither one them wants him. They don’t even care about him. The boy spends a lot of time crying.

 The first hour of Loveless focuses on the separate lives led by Boris and Zhenya. He works for a super-conservative tech company whose religious owners require that all their employees be married. There’s no way Boris can let on that he’s getting a divorce or that his younger girlfriend Masha (Vasileva) is pregnant. Zhenya is involved with Anton (Keyshs), an older man and a member of Russia’s wealthy elite. For her, romance and social climbing are one in the same. Boris and Zhenya are both incredibly self-involved. Neither of them notice or care that their son is in turmoil. Zhenya constantly berates Alyosha while Boris barely acknowledges him.

 The boy’s disappearance is the focal point of the film’s second half. A policeman explains to them that there isn’t much they can do since, in all likelihood, the boy is simply a runaway and will return home in a few days’ time. He goes on to explain that they’re short-staffed and already have a heavy case load. In other words, the usual bureaucratic BS. He tells them to contact a local volunteer group that specializes in finding missing children. The leader Ivan (Fateev), an efficient sort who wastes no time organizing search parties and putting up fliers, suggests that they check with family members to see if Alyosha might have gone to them.

 This is one of the most interesting parts of Loveless. The only relative on either side is Zhenya’s estranged mother (Potapova), a bitter, ultra-religious hermit who resents their intrusion. When you see the dynamic between mother and daughter, you understand why Zhenya turned out like she did. You also understand why she chose a loveless marriage over an abortion or having a child alone when she became pregnant with Alyosha. It was a means of escaping her cold, unloving mother.

 I honestly wish I had seen Loveless before the end of 2017 as it surely would have made my top ten. It’s an outstanding film. “Perfect” is an adjective I don’t use lightly. Very few films are absolutely perfect. I would place Loveless in that category. The way Zvyagintsev structures the narrative is brilliant. Not only do we see how Boris and Zhenya react to the situation, we also see how it affects their respective lovers. It works as both a searing domestic drama and a riveting missing kid thriller/procedural. But Loveless is much more than either or both. In a broader sense, it’s a metaphorical indictment of a society that produces such cold, self-involved characters. Zvyagintsev depicts Russia as a cold and clinical place filled with self-absorbed people living in personal isolation. Look at the scene on the train where Zhenya and all the other passengers have their faces glued to their smartphones. Zvyagintsev’s films reflect that he has the same adversarial relationship with Russia that Fassbinder had with Germany.

 The performances in Loveless are simply amazing. Spivak nails it as the cold-hearted mother who sees her son as a cry-baby. There is absolutely no warmth in her. Even her relationship with Anton feels forced and formal; it’s like she’s just going through the motions.  For her, it’s all about her own personal comfort, financial and otherwise. Even with all that, it’s likely she’ll still be unhappy. Rozin is great as Boris, a man more concerned with career than family. For him, his family is merely a means of holding onto his job. When one falls apart, he starts another. Even in the middle of the movie’s central crisis, husband and wife cannot find a way to get along. They continue to spew venom at each other. In a way, they deserve to lose their child.

 On an artistic level, Loveless also scores high. The cinematography by Mikhail Krichman is beautiful in its bleakness. It’s set in winter; the snowy surroundings perfectly augment the tone of the movie. The opening and closing shots are especially haunting. Although heavy and serious, Loveless is never boring. It captivates the viewer from first frame to last. It’s a well-written movie with an ending you’re not likely to forget. That all the characters are watching news reports of the situation in the Ukraine isn’t at all superfluous. Every choice made by the director is deliberate. Loveless is a film you will never forget. I know I won’t.




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