review by Nazrin Huseinzade
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s gritty social dramas have earned him the veneration of the West and certain scepticism in his native Russia. Personally, I rarely find the catastrophised reality that is so common with the given genre either attractive or convincing. In this sense, Loveless has been a transformative experience in what seems as the director’s most poetic film to date.
The viewer is instantly drawn into the narrative as a witness of a derelict couple, Zhenya and Boris, going through a divorce. They genuinely feed off loathing each other and, as it happens, there is collateral damage to this scarily routine hatred, the 12-year-old Alyosha whose custody is often debated by his parents at the top of their lungs. Both of them have incidentally found their "true loves" and moved on with their lives where the child no longer fits in.
In the midst of their search for a convenient way to write him off, the boy disappears and thus sets Zvyagintsev’s social surgery into motion. Somewhat similarly to Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Alyosha serves as an incision instrument that cuts through the surface of both mother and father to lay bare the disturbing images of nothingness.
The title points at something that is the opposite of love - not hatred but apathy coupled with the pathological solipsism of human beings. The explicitly allegorical family name, the Sleptsovs, derived from a Russian word for blind, only reiterates this dour display of a lost person.
Many will and have called it the new Scenes from a Marriage, and although the director himself admits to similarities, he is not the first or the last one to have inherited Bergman’s microscopic analysis of individuals in a relationship.
Loveless also, quite surprisingly, touches on satire in minor moments. On one occasion, the Russian equivalent of The Bachelor is showing in the background as the couple is in the middle of an argument replete with expletives. Another detail triggering a bitter smile is the poster of The Incredibles on the wall in Alyosha’s room depicting the superhero family he never had.
Structurally, the film operates in loops with the same opening and ending scene of a barricade tape stuck on a tree. This Nietzschean notion of eternal return dictates the lives of the characters as a whole.
Their brand new blithe relationships are certainly doomed as they perpetuate the same cycle of apathy over and over. The loss of a child, an ostensibly life-changing event, proves to be a temporary inconvenience and fails to provoke any thought or development in either parent. This is best exhibited in one of the final scenes with Zhenya running on a treadmill – a blunt yet spot on metaphor for illusion of moving somewhere while being stationary.
The visual homage to Tarkovsky in the film is so heavy that at times it borders on emulation rather than a tribute (not that I am complaining). The most obvious instances are the abandoned palace reminiscent of the Zone in Stalker; or the recreation of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s The Hunters in the Snow, which was done multiple times by Tarkovsky throughout his work.
That said, even with impeccable cinematography, Zvyagintsev’s films have tendency towards being bitter pills to swallow, as such, they will not appeal to everyone’s taste. Neither will Loveless soothe those thirsty for a gulp of an anti-government protest. With the political commentary still on the surface, it is an undeniably universal story as opposed to the particularly Russian tragedy of Leviathan. Transpose this human malady into any other western society and it will still reign just as relevant in its timelessness.