Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russian cinema has struggled to fully grasp its own identity, lacking in the necessary figureheads, such as Eisenstein or Tarkovsky, to lead its charge into the film market and distinguish itself against other national cinemas. Nikita Mikhalkov seemed like a strong bet following Burnt by the Sun, yet he has since disappeared from the limelight. Aleksei Balabanov was another contender, only to fade into cult obscurity.
However, Andrey Zviagintsev is one name that refuses to stand down from the podium. Proving evermore successful per release, and with a strong reputation at Cannes, Zviagintsev looks set to become the newest, truest voice of Russian cinema. And with Loveless, he cements that perspective, crafting a haunting, dystopian vision that seethes with subtle yet devastating drama.
What this drama revolves around is the difficult divorce settlement of Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), two middle-aged parents of a troubled son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), who both seek to move on with their own respective partners and lives. However, their constant conflict affects Alyosha to the point of him abandoning his home, instigating a desperate search as his whereabouts remain a mystery.
The brilliance of Zviagintsev’s work is how he assimilates our spectatorship with Zhenya and Boris’ experience. While you’d expect that Zviagintsev would want us to identify with the victim, with Alyosha, he possesses relatively little screen-time. Instead, in its early moments, Zviagintsev spends an extended period of time exploring the ins and outs of Zhenya and Boris’ private lives, how each of them feels about the other, what the future may hold for them. Yet a sudden realisation occurs: like Zhenya and Boris, by spending so much time with them and their own lives, we’ve all neglected Alyosha entirely, making us all responsible for his disappearance.
It’s this relatability that causes Zviagintsev’s film to stand out from the crowd: there’s no distance to this story, no sense of comfort, as this involves all of us. The fact that the world in which this film is set is dilapidated, nigh-on apocalyptic, should say enough about Zviagintsev’s view of the world: we’ve reached an unstable stage of civilization that needs to be amended, before we doom the next generation to alienation and hopelessness, as embodied in Alyosha.
This is certainly a cynical, pessimistic worldview, but one that is still necessary to confront. It must be said that Zviagintsev is not forceful in his message. While this lacks the bold, allegorical artistry of Tarkovsky and Eisenstein, this works in its favour: basing its narrative in a credible scenario such as a child disappearance, Zviagintsev is able to work wonders with the believable character dynamics, as established in his and Oleg Negin’s terrific, succinct script. While one could not accuse Loveless of being entirely realist, it does ground the action in a way that instigates a more susceptible reaction to the events and what they may or may not allude to in our experience of our volatile world.
All of this is delivered with a distinct sense of meditative, visual clarity that one shouldn’t take for granted. Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography is essential in this regard: serene, patient yet haunting, Krichman crafts an incredible tapestry of images here, contrasting the corroded urban environment with the icy and ill-kept forestry of Moscow’s rural parts. There’s an intimacy to the shots and how they focus on key interactions that really encourages the sense of uncomfortable familiarity with the situation that Zviagintsev is striving for, and it works remarkably well here.
Furthermore, while minimal, the score here is evocative and overwhelming. Pulsating with tremorous notes, increasing in volume and intensity, Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s music mirrors the themes that Zviagintsev is evoking: uncontrollable, increasingly unhinged and seemingly unending in its progression, it symbolises the devastating quality of the world that Zviagintsev wants to reveal to us, achieving this, quite impressively, with its limited presence.
Finally, the performances are worthy of the script and direction employed here. Spivak and Rozin are brilliant as the capricious, noticeably detached parents, whose frustrations at one another are only enhanced by the circumstances they find themselves thrust into. Rather than arouse a sentimental relation to their dilemma, Spivak and Rozin maintain and explore the multifarious, flawed dimensions of their characters in interesting ways. Moreover, despite his absence from the majority of the film, Novikov makes such a strong impression as the estranged son that it is impossible to forget his face across the film’s runtime: one particular moment calls for a surprising yet shocking display of raw emotion, in reply to a conversation he overhears between his parents, that had myself and my fellow audience members writhing with sympathy.
Altogether, Zviagintsev continues his winning streak of contemplative yet crucial films with Loveless. With a complimentary aesthetic, a collection of emotive performances and a forebodingly desperate moral core, Zviagintsev’s Loveless stands as a testament for how cinema can capture and enrapture the audience’s attention, for the purposes of questioning the society that carries on in its routine and encouraging us to engage with this line of questioning in the process. I commend and admire Zviagintsev for this achievement and look forward with eager anticipation to his next release.
Dir: Andrey Zviagintsev
Scr: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zviagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
Prd: Gleb Fetisov, Sergey Melkumov, Alexander Rodnyansky
Music: Evgueni Galperine, Sacha Galperine
DOP: Mikhail Krichman
Loveless is available on Digital, DVD and Blu-Ray now.