Russian cinema is certainly one for its figureheads. Sergei Eisenstein was instrumental in many theories that would go on to establish the cinematic language. Andrei Tarkovsky established and nigh on perfected the arthouse. And since his passing there wasn’t really much of a centerpiece for Russian cinema, as such, it didn’t really make any inroads into the mainstream of world cinema for a good decade or three at least until Andrey Zvyagintsev rose to prominence. Zvyagintsev emerged with familial drama the Return in the early doors of the 21st century. He followed up the return with The Banishment, Ellen and his major breakthrough, Leviathan. Of the back of the latter, he has risen to the top of Russian cinema, once again cementing his national cinema in the dialogue for world cinema. Obviously, there are people beyond these figureheads but culturally it seems fans of world cinema can only focus on one Russian at a time. His newest film, Loveless, fresh from all manner of acclaim in 2017, hits the shelves of the high street through Altitude films.
Not to be confused with My Bloody Valentine’s formative shoegaze LP, Loveless continues Zvyagintsev’s mastery of all things bleak using a fascination high on Independent American cinema’s list of thematic concerns – the dissolution of the family unit. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a brutal divorce, caring only for themselves and not sparing a single thought for those caught in the collateral damage. After a particularly spiteful back and forth the pair goes their separate ways and into the arms of the lovers each of them has on the side. Their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), has been missing for two days before either of them notice. After seeing his parents go hammer and tong in the middle of the night and hearing from the horse’s mouth how little either of his parents care for him, he runs away from home. For the first half of this 2-hour drama, Loveless is about the devastating effect a loveless marriage can have on two people, then, about an hour in the film changes entirely as it becomes something completely anew – a film about finding the missing son with this noxious relationship surrounding the search.
Like any of his films before this, Loveless is a barren study on the Russian family unit and the effect that an absolute lack of love has on them and those around them. Whether he is making some larger comment on the narcissism of modern relationships and the lengths people go to-to not be alone is entirely in the eye of the beholder. He certainly depicts this situation like the consummate craftsman he is, developing and directing two loathsome characters that are beyond reproach. Wonderfully acted, for sure, but hateful. And therein lies my main issue with Zvyagintsev’s latest. Loveless is a void from which no light can escape. As Roger Ebert’s famous quote states, “movies are an empathy machine”, and there is no such thing here. Zhenya and Boris are horrid human beings so no matter what their plight is, I simply didn’t care, like so many badly written and irritating scream queens, I hoped for bad things to happen to them. Whether or not it ends well for Alyosha remains ambiguous, nevertheless, I was glad that he managed to escape from such a poisonous home. “Good on him”, I thought. Now whether I am a black-hearted individual or I was manipulated to that conclusion is up for interpretation. An interpretation I would be much more willing to create a dialogue with if near enough all the major players weren’t abhorrent; if there was one personality trait that painted either of them with even a glimmer of a positive light.
While Boris is having lunch at work and learning that his employers don’t have any record of divorce, and the ridiculous lengths some go to keep up the facade of being married there are words of an apocalypse. Loveless is set around the time where all those who fear for apocalypse marked on their collective calendars as it was the day the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar ended (in December 2012). It is a fascinating debate as to why that calendar ended then exactly, but in regards to Loveless, it informs the context, mood, and locations. This is set in Russia in Winter, there is no colour, no love, and Grey as far as the eye can see. This is Zvyagintsev’s apocalypse film, albeit one on a macro-scale.
In the spry second half, the effort to find Alyosha takes the manhunt across the countryside and into a litany of decrepit Soviet buildings and it is glorious. As a fan of post-apocalyptic and dystopian cinema as well as photographers like Abandoned Yorkshire to see this side of Russia, one forgotten in the inexorable march towards progress toned down my feelings on the unpleasant ensemble. It also forms the connective tissue in Loveless’s greater subtext, one that relates a marriage in crisis to the greater country in crisis. A subtext which makes it clear that Loveless & Andrey Zvyagintsev played me like a fiddle.