Loveless (2017) by Andrey Zvyagintsev: a chilling tale of emotional detachment in materialistic Russia

Loveless - Maryana Spivak and Matvey Novikov

After The Return, The Banishment, Elena (reviewed here) and Leviathan, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless offers another ruthless yet stylish perspective on modern day Russia, through the story of a family in crisis.

In Loveless, Zvyagintsev explores the disintegration of the archetypical Russian family model as the Western individualistic lifestyle pervades the middle class, providing instant gratification and the promise of wealth and success.

Loveless - Matvey Novikov

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are a young couple going through a painful separation. They have a 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), a quiet and sullen boy clearly affected by his parents’ lack of consideration and constant arguing.  His parents never really wanted him – and they can’t stop reminding him he is a nuisance and a burden. They’re in a hurry to sell their flashy ex-soviet flat so they can get on with their selfish lives and join their respective lovers. Boris has an affair with a much younger girl and has got the ingénue pregnant, seemingly trying to reproduce a failed family pattern.  Zhenya is madly in love with an older, successful businessman, a true father figure. One day, Alyosha goes missing. The parents are stunned. It is as though his disappearance has reminded them that he existed at all. As the search starts and the area canvassed, Zhenya and Boris begin to understand how emotionally detached they have been from their son. His disappearance has not made them realise how much they loved him, but how little they did. It’s the terrible and cold-hearted revelation that they never really cared about him.

Loveless - Aleksey Rozin

Yet, as the story unfolds, Zvyagintsev slowly transforms his cold, heartless characters into sensitive human beings, revealing the true depth of their fragility. Not that he is sympathetic to their self-centred ways of life, but he manages to grasp the little piece of humanity left in them. Although they carry on with their lives revolving around professional success and smartphone vanity, Zhenya and Boris are profoundly, definitively changed by Alyosha’s disappearance – even they can’t pretend he never existed. Spivak and Rozin’s acting is terrific – the former skilfully conveying a creeping feeling of unease and unhappiness, the latter embodying sheer selfishness and idiocy.

There is a particularly heart-breaking scene where Alyosha bursts into tears in his room unbeknownst to his mother walking passed his door. The viewer is projected into the kid’s intimacy and is dying for the mother to take notice – to no avail.

Loveless - Maryana Spivak

Through his idiosyncratic use of sharp and insipid imagery and his almost monochrome, lifeless nature shots, Zvyagintsev strengthens the bleakness of the situation and depicts an uncaring and selfish society. Except for the volunteer search team, who kindly works through the night to find the missing boy, taking over from an uncompassionate police service, it is an unforgiving portrait of modern Russia, with its luxury, catalogue interiors, fancy restaurants, open-plan offices, contrasting with the remains of the soviet period and its massive brutalist concrete housing estates. The winter landscapes in Muscovite suburbia are both beautiful and frightful. There is a striking scene where families are playing in the snow which is reminiscent of one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings, “The Hunters in the Snow” and gives the film a timeless texture.

As with Zvyangintsev’s previous films,  Loveless doesn’t shed a particularly brilliant light on Russian society but calls upon the viewer to reconsider what is really essential in life and what makes us humans. Beyond status and external signs of success and wealth, it’s about geniunely communicating and taking care of each other. In one word: love.


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