At a time with such heightened political anxiety, when Americans wonder what it’s truly like to live in Putin’s mysterious Russia, “Loveless,” nominee for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, may provide us with some answers. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev, the celebrated director of “The Return” and “Leviathan,” the film illustrates a world in which the sociopolitical state is so bleak that relationships and love have a difficult chance at survival.
“Loveless” is set in Moscow in the autumn, where Mikhail Krichman’s haunting cinematography and cool tones illustrate a desolate, cold and lifeless environment of trees without leaves or snow. His camera, like a ghost, slowly floats over icy rivers and grey forests and embodies this dreary mood. There is no place for flowers to grow and love to bloom. This place of lovelessness has no care and nothing or anyone to care for. It has no tenderness for its citizens.
The characters that exist, barely, in this world are Zhenya (Maryana Spivak, “Vasiliy Stalin”) and her husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin, “Leviathan”) who suffer together in a miserable marriage. On the brink of divorce, Zhenya and Boris have already moved on from each other, but there was never really any love between them. The only thread that holds their marriage together is Boris’s conservative Christian boss who implements a company policy where divorce is not permitted. Boris impregnates a younger girl, while Zhenya starts dating a wealthier older man who buys her lobster and wine while she plays footsies with his crotch during dinner.
Zhenya and Boris’s 12-year-old son, Alyosha, played by newcomer but natural Matvey Novikov, overhears one of their fights during the middle of the night. Illuminated by one of the film’s most painful visual shots — a silent howl behind Zhenya’s door slam — Alyosha has had enough of being unloved. He disappears the next day while his parents are off sleeping with their respective lovers. Of course they don’t realize his absence initially because they are so entrenched in total self-involvement. They are unable to see how their actions affect others, including their child. Zvyagintsev seems to be simultaneously critiquing our era’s current reliance on selfies and social media — means for people to be obsessed with themselves and be blind to compassion. The morning after Zhenya and Boris argue, Zhenya is too preoccupied with posting pictures and scrolling through her feed that she doesn’t even notice when Alyosha’s single tear dances down his face.
At first glance, “Loveless” appears to be a film about a tragic marriage that results in a runaway child. But it has way more complexity than that; by the end of the film, you realize it isn’t even about Alyosha whatsoever — he is secondary to the thesis of the film. It is about a voyage of attempting to become self-aware by selfish people who are wholly engulfed in themselves. It is a quest to possess empathy.
“Loveless” has layers. Like “Leviathan,” an allegory and social commentary about the plight of ordinary people living under Russia’s bureaucracy and institutional corruption, “Loveless” makes subtle critiques of the Russian state and how it is falling apart. Its arbitrary credence in religion, its engagement in war, its governmental chaos and failure of its police force to look for Alyosha. We hear real news clips on Boris’s radio in the background to remind us of the eerie politics of the period.
“Loveless” is hauntingly hypnotic. It makes us look into ourselves and question: How can life exist without love? “Loveless” then answers this question: It can’t.