Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Screenplay: Oleg Negin, Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov
Country: Russia, France, Germany, Belgium, USA
Running Time: 127 min
Year: 2017
BBFC Certificate: 15

Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev has been wowing critics and festival goers with his small handful of feature films, starting with 2003’s The Return which won him the Golden Lion at Venice. I reviewed his 2014 film Leviathan when it reached British shores and was impressed, even if I found it a bit cold. As such I was most interested in watching Zvyagintsev’s follow up, Loveless, which won the Jury Prize at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival, although I was prepared for an icy, grim evening when I put the Blu-Ray on the other night.

Loveless places us in the midst of a painful and messy divorce. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) only ever married Boris (Aleksey Rozin) because she became pregnant and the pair believed it was the right thing to do. They were never happy though and eventually decided enough was enough. We join them near the end of the process, when they’re trying to sell their apartment and decide what to do about custody of their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). Whilst they argue about who should care of him, they barely acknowledge his present existence. The boy is left largely to his own devices and spends much of his time crying alone in his room or wandering the local woods by himself. One day Zhenya receives a call from Alyosha’s school saying he hasn’t been there for 2 days and she realises he’s not been home for a day or so either. She calls Boris and they go to the police for help, but they think he’ll just show up soon and don’t have time to deal with the case, so suggest they contact a voluntary search and rescue organisation instead. The hunt for Alyosha means the couple are forced to spend further unwanted time with each other and their idyllic lives with their new partners are put on hold.

I talked in my review of Leviathan how Russian cinema has a tendency to be slow and bleak and this is certainly no rocket fuelled thrill ride. However, with the quiet threat of danger early on before Alyosha goes missing and the ever present worry about what has happened to him afterwards, Loveless has a strange grip to it, even if it isn’t plot heavy or filled with exciting set pieces.

In terms of fitting Russia’s typically bleak outlook though, the film serves up an icy dish that puts everything else to shame. Taking its title to the extreme, the lead pair are utterly devoid of love for each other and even to their son. Rather than fighting to be his primary caregiver, the couple argue as to why they think the other should have him. Neither seem to have any interest in the boy and even after he’s disappeared Zhenya talks of how she never really wanted him. Due to this, it’s a very difficult film to warm to. The central couple are pretty despicable and wholly unlikeable. It seems to be Zvyagintsev’s point though. He’s examining what he believes to be modern society’s decline towards sheer apathy (thus the title, although it translates slightly differently in its Russian form to the ‘opposite of love’).

His point is made rather bluntly though, which brings forth my main problem with the film. It’s not what anyone would call subtle. On top of the unbelievably cold characters, Zvyagintsev points his camera towards modern technology as a prime catalyst for the lack of compassion in the world, as characters are constantly tapping away on phones, staring at laptops or impassively watching the TV. It’s a point that’s drilled home a bit too far and the lack of humour or warmth in the film makes for an experience a little too far detached from reality to take seriously. It becomes almost comedic how cold most characters act. The large team of volunteers giving up their time to help find Alyosha provide a glimmer of light in the film though and contrasting their search with his parents’ disinterest towards the boy has a wry irony. Again it’s not particularly subtle though.

However, I shouldn’t sound too negative towards the film. In terms of craft it’s as finely honed as Zvyagintsev’s previous work. It’s directed with great care and attention and the film looks stunning. Using locations, sets and production design to wonderfully stark effect, every frame looks like a work of art, albeit one stained in nothing but cold hues.

With a climax and coda that do little to turn the gloomy tide, the film is a punishing watch that damns modern society, particularly in Russia. It often hammers home its message a bit too hard (the shot of Zhenya wearing a team Russia top at the end whilst going nowhere on a treadmill was a bit much for instance), but it’s strikingly well made and perversely watchable. Indeed, as grim as it all is, you can’t help but hold on to the vain hope that Alyosha will be found and somehow these empty vessels of characters will start afresh, happy. Allas, it’s too late, we’re all f***ed.

It’s the sort of film that makes you want to hug your kids afterwards to prove to yourself you’re not like its characters. No doubt you’ll soon whip your phone out though and your thoughts will turn to your social media feeds. Perhaps Zvyagintsev’s film isn’t too far from the truth after all…

Loveless is available on digital download on 4th June and on Blu-Ray and DVD on 11th June in the UK, released by Altitude Film Distribution. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the film looks and sounds superb.

There are a few special features included. These are as follows:

– 33 Min Q&A (Nottingham Broadway with writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky)

– 33 Min Q&A (Nottingham Broadway with writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev and producer Alexander Rodnyansky)
– 60 Min Making Of Feature

It may not look like much on paper, but the two features are in-depth and lengthy enough to the equal to any commentary and an improvement over the usual fluffy ‘featurettes’ that clog up studio home releases.

3.5Overall Score
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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