If Andrey Zvyagintsev’s ‘Loveless’ were a colour, it would be the hardest, bleakest, most brutal grey you can imagine. Not just representative of the unsparing winter or crumbling architecture against which this missing child drama unfolds, it’s as if the spiritual rot at the heart of Putin’s Russia has infected its citizens, draining them of life, of hope, of anything with even a passing resemblance to human emotion, and replaced it with that hard, bleak, brutal grey.
Spoiler alert: if you’re looking for a fun time at the cinema, maybe keep walking.
Set all the way back in the relative global sanity of 2012, this national moral crisis is embodied in the toxic marriage of Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak, easily the film’s finest and most beguilingly hateful performance), and the impact of their horrific, guttural divorce on the child neither of them particularly wants custody of, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Having each already moved on to new partners and new lives, Alyosha’s subsequent disappearance initially isn’t even noticed by either of his vitriolic parents, and the ensuing search (with the help of maybe the film’s only figure of quiet decency) only serves to deepen the rifts between them and further sour the torrents of bile that each of them spews at the other. All the while, the country’s deteriorating relationship with Ukraine and hysterical media serve as an ever-present ominous hum in the background.
Subtle storytelling it ain’t, but there’s an undeniable power to Zvyagintsev’s merciless deconstruction of modern Russia and its discontents, and his steadfast refusal to be anything less than ruthlessly unforgiving of both his characters and his country is indeed impressive. It’s as if he’s using an axe to make scalpel-sharp incisions and somehow getting away with it, to the point where an image of Zhenya on a treadmill, running towards nothing, while wearing the tracksuit of the Russian Olympic team, somehow doesn’t feel like the ridiculous, overly literal, patronising image that it surely could have been - Mother Russia’s got some issues, y’all.
It’s as if he’s using an axe to make scalpel-sharp incisions and somehow getting away with it
In fact, it’s that image and one other that solidifies the film’s place as an impressive achievement of ice-cold political brutality, and both have reverberated in my head for months on end. Its partner comes earlier in the film, before Alyosha’s disappearance, and speaks to the prickly, ominously roaming camerawork that’s instrumental to the film’s success. In it, a particularly emotionally bloody, vicious argument between the couple in their handsome apartment is interrupted by a single surprise image that is maybe some of the simplest, most harrowing and devastating child acting I’ve ever been gut-punched by in a cinema before. Though it may be obviously constructed in hindsight, it’s an unshakeably bold and harrowing stroke – the first of many in this difficult, ferociously angry piece of filmmaking.