Often, it makes sense for a filmmaker to present his political commentary with a light touch, letting his story’s inherent drama speak louder than his talking points. Other times, the sledgehammer approach has significant benefits. Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, whose last film was the Oscar-nominated Leviathan, has crafted a slow-burn moral drama that starts off as the portrait of a loveless marriage and the unhappiness it spawns in the form of a distraught 12-year-old child. But as Loveless rolls along, its scope widens, becoming a blistering commentary on the callous society that Zvyagintsev sees around him. What’s the point of subtlety when your argument is this persuasive and this angry?
Much in the style of his stripped-down 2011 drama Elena, Loveless is all perfectly composed, slightly icy images and tightly drawn characters, the plot only gradually asserting itself. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin) are counting down the days until their divorce—barely able to live under the same roof, they both have lovers on the side, and neither seems particularly concerned what will become of their boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) once they separate. Send him to a boarding school? Pawn him off on the other parent? It’s not that they dislike Alyosha—it’s just that he’s a daily, physical reminder of a hateful marriage they rushed into once Zhenya got pregnant.
For much of its first half, Loveless chronicles this couple through the prism of their other relationships. Boris is happily involved with a sexy younger woman (Marina Vasilyeva) who’s pregnant with his child. Zhenya has stumbled into contentment with an older, very successful man (Andris Keishs) whom she loves—in fact, she confesses to him, he’s the only person she’s ever loved. Whatever mistakes they made while falling for one another, Zhenya and Boris seem to have found people at last who give them what they need.
Zvyagintsev isn’t judgmental about this failed couple. Working with his regular cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, Zvyagintsev applies his usual cool, detached style to the material, quietly observing these people as they begin the next phase of their lives away from one another.
That’s when a quiver of dread enters into the picture. They learn that Alyosha—who, come to think of it, has disappeared from Loveless over the last hour—hasn’t been at school the last two days. Too wrapped up in starting their new relationships, Zhenya and Boris just sort of assumed the other parent had seen the boy recently. They’re concerned about his whereabouts, but there’s a strange remove in their reactions. Yes, they’re upset—but they’re not as upset as one might expect parents to be.
What follows, like in Elena, is a brilliantly methodical, logical procedural. In Elena, the plot concerned a wife’s desire to kill her rich, older husband and then try to get away with her crime. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev goes into detail about how a missing-child case would play out. There’s a bloodless lack of melodrama to Zvyagintsev’s story. That’s partly because the characters’ local Russian police force is as bureaucratic and unsympathetic as any around the globe. The cops will look for the kid, but they figure he’ll come back on his own. (Unhelpfully, one law enforcement officer suggests they check the mall since young people seem to like it.)
But the muted tone also seems to be a reaction to this soon-to-be-divorced couple’s withering detachment. Although Loveless never comes out and says it directly, these people are hunting down a child they don’t entirely want. Waves of guilt, resentment, disappointment, sadness and love wash over the characters’ mostly placid faces, and Zvyagintsev crafts their search as a nearly biblical punishment for their own callous behavior. Viewers notice early on in Loveless how much his parents’ arguing affects a crying Alyosha. Did he disappear because of their fighting? Or has something more ominous occurred? Is the boy’s vanishing perhaps some sort of cosmic retribution aimed at a couple who birthed him into a unloving home?
The brilliant chilliness extends to the performances. Spivak wears a mask of angry indifference as Zhenya, calmly announcing at one point that she’d always wanted to abort the pregnancy but that dumb Boris insisted they keep the child. There’s an aspect of social climbing to Zhenya’s makeup—she loves this older man in part because of the material comforts he can give her—but it’s no less irksome than Boris’ foolhardy chasing of a pretty, younger woman who can make him feel vibrant again. Rozin has appeared in Zvyagintsev’s previous two films, and in Loveless he’s wonderfully ineffectual. Neither character is morally abhorrent—they’re just self-centered individuals who are happy to paint themselves as the victims in this bad marriage. Their evil is one of mindless insensitivity.
In a conventional film, Zhenya and Boris’ journey to find their boy would open up newfound pockets of love and respect toward one another. That does not happen in Loveless. Instead, a cruel calmness descends on the story as options start to dwindle and Alyosha’s likelihood of survival diminishes. The movie becomes intensely gripping in two ways: Will they find the child? And will their resigned animosity ever waver?
Zvyagintsev builds to a final sequence that magnificently brings the entire story into sharper focus. And then, the director lets fly with a daring gambit. Often in his films, Zvyagintsev makes subtle points about Russian society, which he finds indifferent to the individual. Not surprisingly, family strife is often at the center of his oeuvre, which began with 2003’s The Return, about two boys’ anxious reunion with their distant, intimidating father. Loveless finds Zvyagintsev in an equally despairing mood about his homeland. It’s best not to get into particulars, but let it be said that he makes this couple’s quest emblematic of larger cultural forces, and the film’s chilliness gives way to outright fury.
Are his points too on the nose? Perhaps. But one of Loveless’ great strengths is how it cannily withholds clear emotional involvement with its characters—only to set us up for one blindsiding salvo at the end. When the film concludes, you may find yourself wanting to watch it again to fully absorb the journey Zvyagintsev took you on. And because Loveless is so accomplished, the repeat viewing promises to be deeply rewarding.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Writers: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Alexey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasilyeva, Andris Keishs, Alexey Fateev
Release Date: Screening in competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.