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Loveless: An exceptional, harrowing, relentlessly gut-wrenching masterpiece of a drama
February 9, 2018
Loveless is set in the dreary grey winter of a modern day Moscow neighbourhood, where post-Soviet apartment blocs are taken over by middle-class families and given an IKEA makeover. Zhenya (Maryanna Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through an acrimonious divorce, their unabashed resentment for each other spills over into their parenting of their only son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Parents only in name, in what can only be described as emotional negligence. Both having checked out of their partnership ages ago, escaped to form new relationships, with Boris even expecting with his new one. Their parental obligations as well as societal, employment and possibly religious pressures are prolonging the split.
Alyosha is fully aware he’s the cause of his parents entrapment, after over-hearing yet another insufferable arguement, he leaves for school the following morning, only to never come back. What follows is a harrowing, relentlessly tense search for their son through a torturous journey filled with guilt, blame and uncertainty. Alyosha’s disspaearance will hauntingly tie the couple together, forever.
Unsurprisingly Loveless has been shortlisted for an Oscar for Foreign film, following in the steps of director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s previous release; 2014’s highly acclaimed, also nominated Leviathan. In a similar vein to Leviathan, the film is centred around the personal tribulations of family members and subsequent relationships, all underpinned by a shrewd commentary on the current state of affairs in Russian society such as religion, class, public services and political motivations.
According to Loveless, modern life in Moscow is still at the grips of religious dogma as as well still retaining a mood of hard post-Soviet societal austerity. The western liberal influence is at loggerheads with tradition and dictator style democracy. The disappearance of Alyosha is met by a shockingly nonchalant police services who apart from reporting the incident are unable to do anything apart from simply assigning him to an ever growing list of lost children; thats until and if he ever shows up. The search begins when a pro-bono investigative agency takes on the case, who seem to go to unimaginable efforts to find him considering its all volunteer run. Zvyaginstev juxtaposes to higlight societal hypocricy by depicting Boris’s job as a highly moral and religious work place, where employees adhere to strict tradional values. Boris is concerned his ultra Christian Orthodox employer will fire him on the premise of him divorcing; he would actually have legal grounds to do so.
Its in these real life representations that have garnered Zvyaginstev the reputation of being a thorn on Putin’s side as stated in article by the New Stateman. The film’s production cleverly did not fully disclose the film’s plot premise when seeking state funding, which makes it elligible to be submitted for Oscar, as well Zvyaginstev publicly endorses opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Spivak impresses as the icy, bitter mother; unable to muster even a modicum of warmth toward Aloysha or put up any pretences to hide her dislike for Boris infront of him. Her son is a reminder of her captivity, a life she is so desperately wanting to leave behind. She is aspirational, her good looks and sculpted body have bagged her a new affluent partner Anton (Andris Keiss) in his minimalist open planned luxury flat. Ticking all the boxes, Anton is emblematic of the neoliberal, high society lifestyle she desires to enter into. Equally Rozin’s Boris is laudable as the sappy, spineless, burley Boris, who jumps from one family to the next, lacking any stamina, wanting to be controlled and looked after by the women in his life. The most noteworthy performance, however, comes from Zhenya’s acerbic and disturbingly aggressive mother Mat Zheni, played by Natalya Potapova. With just under ten minutes of screen time, as Boris and Zhenya visit her in the hopes of finding Aloysha, Mat Zheni’s projects such vicious and poisonous tirade, an intense scathing monologue, that it renders Zhenya and Boris hopeless to retaliate. Needless to say Alyosha wasnt there, but perhaps gives us more background on Zhenya, explaining why she married young and her overall cold demeanour.
Zvyaginstev’s slick directorial style appears as simple and uncomplicated but it is evident that there is underlying intricate thought process. He is able to rack up the tension by intensifying his protagonists ordeal, to the point where emotional climax overides plot ending. If you break the film down it all boils down to the actor’s delivery and Zvyaginstev ability to draw out of them raw and intense emotional performances. Furthermore, as well as highlighting the actors psyche, the director is able to shine light on urban, metropolitan Moscow. His hyperealistic way of shooting coupled by the films dark, yet sharp and crystal clear cinematorgraphy (courtesy of Mikhail Krichman) enlightens the viewer of the city’s rich post-modern architectural landscape.
Zvyaginstev uses the plethora of natural settings that the particular Moscovian neighboorhood provides, although dreary and bleak, it is stunning regardless. The snowy and slushy city road, where buses come and go, its lined-up trees featuring faded posters of Alyosha’s face, or the stillness of the leafless park which is interjected by the bright red jackets of the wondering search party or the rather tragic moment where Boris and Zhenya are instructed to visit the dark and filthy morgue to identify a child’s body. In that particular scene as well as with most of the movie, Zvyaginstev doesnt give access to the viewer of what the charcater sees; its only through the apparent stress on their faces or any verbal communication that we deduce the outcome.
Zvyagintsev has produced an exceptional, harrowing and gut-wrenchingly heart-rendering drama. He manages to visually articulate the story in such a tactile way, that he emotionally charges the viewer without actually ever showing anything, and does so by encapsulating the essence of the story through the personal drama of each of his protagonists.
Loveless is out now.
Words by Daniel Theophanous @danny_theo_