There’s a hard-earned Russian fatalism resonating in the films of director Andrey Zvyagintsev. Best known for his 2014 film “Leviathan,” he creates deep, sad, beautifully shot moral tales where hope flickers like a candle in darkness. Through unforgiving portraits of ruptured families and subtle but telling critiques of the state and its emerging class system, he condemns abuses of power on many levels.
“Loveless” begins as a portrait of parental neglect, burrowing deeper scene by scene toward an indictment of mother Russia’s betrayal of its citizens. The film opens in the fall of 2012 as 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) walks home from school through snowy woods that sometimes resemble a forest playground but from other angles seem more of a nightmare.
The apartment of his emotionally frigid parents is much nearer the latter, as Boris (Alexei Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) impatiently search for a buyer so they can go off with their respective lovers as soon as possible. Neither is committed to bringing Alyosha into their new relationships. Boris’ girlfriend is already swollen with pregnancy. Zhenya can’t wait to move to her sugar daddy’s high-design condo, where a youngster wouldn’t fit in. The sensitive Alyosha, still a child but not a fool, spends his time with his bedroom door closed, crying.
Because his mother and father routinely set up nights out, neither notices right away that their child has vanished. The local police offer little help. It’s probably not a kidnapping, the police conclude; rebellious kids go missing a lot. More supportive action comes from a private volunteer agency than the authorities.
Zvyagintsev directs with logic, rationality and painstaking attention to detail. His camera follows the parents as they go through the motions of mounting a search, and dealing with their varying feelings of guilt as the pressure mounts. Their son’s absence triggers an orgy of accusations and blame between the two rather than an impulse to find and hug him back into their lives.
The film builds a sinister atmosphere as the hostile parents attempt to locate some clues, visit abandoned buildings where Alyosha may be hiding and, in a genuinely unsettling sequence, follow a coroner into the morgue. The story could lead to dreadful discoveries in so many ways that my detective powers were strained to the limits. And yet this is no textbook mystery; it retains a realistic core that kept me committed to what becomes an increasingly cold case. The movie is also worth watching for the uniformly good performances.
The collateral damage of this deeply toxic marriage explicitly begins in 2012, with background TV news and radio reports referring to Russia’s rising conflict in eastern Ukraine. The news touches more than the story’s timeline. As the film pushes toward its stinging poignant finale, Zvyagintsev shows obstinate, self-serving Zhenya working out on a treadmill in her luxurious new residence. She’s pouring energy into an exercise taking her nowhere in a track suit whose design unmistakably ties her to Mother Russia, modern style. The film’s real charge is the chaos of the times.