In the new Russian film Loveless, Alyosha, played by Matvey Novikov, is a 12-year-old boy whose parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are going through a fractious divorce. They are in the middle of selling their apartment, and they are so caught up in their incessant and ugly bickering that they are oblivious to the emotional damage they are inflicting on their child. Boris is about to be a father again, already preparing for his new life with his pregnant girlfriend, Masha, played by Marina Vasilyeva. Zhenya, too, is desperately impatient to sell their home, and to move in with her attractive and wealthy new lover, Anton (Andris Keišs). So self-involved are the adults that it takes a full day for them to realise their son has gone missing. Once informed of Alyosha’s absence by the school authorities, Boris is confident his son has deliberately run off, that he will return. Zhenya is not so sure. As the days and nights pass, their anxiety turns to fear and then slowly, inexorably, into genuine terror.
From such an intense yet insular and domestic beginning, Loveless carefully, intelligently and poetically expands its canvas to explore not only the meaning of Alyosha’s disappearance for his family but also for his community and for the wider society. Though we may initially believe the title of the film refers to the breakdown of the family unit, very quickly we come to understand that the absence of compassion encompasses the Russian nation itself. The police openly admit they don’t have the resources or the patience to look for the boy and it is left to a group of volunteers to coordinate the search for Alyosha. The company Boris works for is owned by an ultra-Orthodox Christian director who demands that his employees submit to conservative family values, and so Boris is fearful of admitting the truth of his impending divorce let alone that his son has gone missing. Anton, a cosmopolitan businessman, lives in a haute bourgeois apartment that is hermetically sealed off, not only from the streets below but from the very disturbances and conflicts of the nation. In a sense, everyone we encounter in Loveless is isolated from one another. Their only social interaction occurs through continual swiping on their mobile phones and the glimpses we get of what they are looking at reveals nothing more than the trivialities of social media. The technologies that do bring in news from the outside – the reality of war, the arrest of oligarchs, terrorism and millennial fears – are the radio and the television. But they are only background noise. No one listens, no one takes in the violent and distressing images they are passively and blankly consuming.
I have often been impressed by director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s work. His 2014 film Leviathan also assayed the moral and political collapse of Russian society. As in his earlier film The Return, the consequences of such decay and corruption were illuminated through the effects visited on family and on communities remote from the centre of Moscow or St Petersburg.
There is an astonishing delight one has as a critic when a filmmaker long admired delivers a work that transcends their previous body of work. I thought both The Return and Leviathan exceptional films but they also seemed much indebted to a long history of European art film, and in their measured and often classical mise en scène I felt that Zvyagintsev was sometimes wearing his influences on his sleeve. There seemed a dogged determination to refract his very Russian stories through the austere aesthetics of filmmakers such as Resnais or Antonioni, the early work of Kieślowski, particularly his Dekalog series. That classicism and also that austerity is still prominent in Loveless but there is a thrilling unbounding in the film, where what unfolds is framed and communicated in a voice and conviction that a viewer feels they have never seen or heard before.
The film begins on a hoar-drenched winter woodland scene, with images of a frozen river. Zvyagintsev will keep returning to this forest landscape, on the edge of vast suburban expanse, in part because that is where most of the search is undertaken, and also because it is only in this forest, in the film’s early scenes, that we see Alyosha find his sole happiness and respite. The destruction that human greed causes nature is a recurrent theme for Zvyagintsev and it is this concern that grants his films metaphysical potency that transcends the bleakness of his stories. In Loveless this contrast is particularly overwhelming because the difference between the natural world and the isolation and anomie of the city is so stark and seemingly irreparable. The film’s events unfold over the beginning of the winter and as the characters are revealed to be irredeemably lost and alienated, the increasing harshness of that season’s descent works as a fugue-like accompaniment to the destructiveness of family and society. The forest reminds us of what is being lost and if Loveless is indeed a spiritual film, which I believe it is, then its true theme is the meaning of this loss. This film is a lament, and its denouement is almost unbearable. It is the most rare of artistic achievements: a true tragedy.
All this might suggest that Loveless is formally distancing and weighty but the search for Alyosha gives the film urgency, a narrative propulsion that is deeply involving. Novikov’s screen time is minimal but this young actor has such a genuine talent, we acutely sense his loss when he goes missing. We want the search party to find the boy, not only because we have come to care for him but because we also wish to return to those moments of peace that grace the beginning of the film. For the rest of the time we are in a world without love and without charity, and though we understand that the filmmakers are telling us a deeply Russian story we also comprehend that the world we are seeing is mirroring the cruel worlds in which we find ourselves. We want Alyosha to be found; we want that hope.
The entire ensemble of Loveless is a standout but I want to particularly praise Maryana Spivak’s performance. As Zhenya, she is playing a woman so angry and resentful of the failure of her marriage and the disappointment of her life that her only response is an unflinching and unapologetic selfishness. It’s a role that feels dangerous in her refusal to bow to the expectations demanded of her as a mother. Boris is equally selfish as a parent but there is a greater cultural censure of the neglectful mother and Spivak does not ever try to cheat the role, to work at gaining the audience’s sympathy. She remains loyal to Zvyagintsev’s unrelenting vision of a world bereft of love. The film is incredibly controlled but by the end we understand a furious anger has guided us throughout. Spivak’s dedication to that vision means that when Zhenya finally has to confront the truth of her alienation and loss, the moment is one of the most harrowing and emotional I have experienced in the cinema. Spivak is phenomenal in this role.
I first saw this film at the Melbourne International Film Festival last year and when it ended the audience was silent, unmoving. I think we were stunned by having a work of art challenge and move us, to have a film, without any resort to irony or aesthetic postmodern distancing, affect us as tragedy. My second viewing has only confirmed my deep and profound regard for it. I have been eagerly awaiting its general release and for the past six months when people have asked me what has been the film that has meant most to me over the past few years, I have immediately answered, “Loveless”. I have been disturbed to find many people have responded to my enthusiasm by saying, “It sounds too bleak” or “The world’s terrible enough, I don’t need to be told that”. Often these people have been highly educated and progressive artists and others literate in cinema. Of course, I understand their reticence, that sense of our all being shocked by the unravelling that is the world post-Manus Island, post-Brexit and post-Trump. But I am concerned that beyond all this, their antipathy to experiencing a film such as Loveless is that it doesn’t let any of us off the hook, that in exposing our increasing social desolation it also lays bare the intellectual poverty and cowardice in settling into our bubbles and of the abrogation of real engagement for the self-righteous panacea of hashtags and identity politics.
There is no other film I have seen over the past decade that has spoken to the damage of our times as eloquently and profoundly as Loveless. Yes, it is bleak; but Zvyagintsev has created a truly contemporary tragedy, and he has done it with formidable artistic control and with unstinting moral seriousness. I think the film a masterpiece. Loveless is a mirror that dares us to look into it, to not flinch or look away. If you care about the art of cinema, I think you should take on that dare. Do not miss this film.
LITERATURE Sydney Writers’ Festival
Venues throughout Sydney, April 30 – May 6
BALLET The Merry Widow
Sydney Opera House, until May 19
CINEMA Human Rights Arts & Film Festival
Cinemas throughout Melbourne, May 3-17
PHOTOGRAPHY Bill Henson
Tolarno Galleries, Melbourne, May 3 – June 2
LITERATURE Clunes Booktown Festival
Clunes, Victoria, May 5-6
CLASSICAL The Harpist – Xavier de Maistre
City Recital Hall, Sydney, May 2-11
Melbourne Recital Centre, May 12-13
VISUAL ART The Field Revisited
NGV Australia, Melbourne, until August 26
Monash University of Art, Melbourne, until July 7
SCULPTURE The Existence of Ghosts
Lightbox, Hobart, until April 30
VISUAL ART Works on Paper
Despard Gallery, Hobart, until April 29
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 28, 2018 as "Lost in alienation". Subscribe here.