If Russia ever decides it needs a new tourism board, the last person it’ll call up will be Andrey Zvyagintsev. With Leviathan and now Loveless, his recent output has made Putin’s nation seem less like a functioning country than the place from which the end of the world will emanate outwards. Apocalypses, whether of the familial or the Mayan kind, loom large in every scene of Loveless, a powerful and politically charged story of children receiving the punishments that their parents have earned. Ice cold to a fault, but still compelling and distressing, it’s a call to arms to all the parents and elders of Russia to finally render their country habitable for its youth.
At the centre of Loveless is the missing child of a truly reprehensible couple in the midst of a divorce. After bearing tear-stained witness to a vicious row between his mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and father Boris (Aleksey Ronin), 12 year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) runs away, vanishing into the woods past the city limits. The frankly presented image of Alyosha’s grief during his parents’ fights is one of the most starkly horrible images of the year, absolutely devastating in its raw reality, illustrating how a parent’s rage is warped into a child’s trauma.
Alyosha’s disappearance should by all rights have his parents putting aside their differences, at least temporarily, to make the search as effective as possible. Instead, their vile selfishness has them continuing with their useless recriminations against one another and self-pity in the arms of their new lovers. Zhenya and Boris actually eventually become too hateful, diminishing the impact their grief or fear might have, as Boris’s unforgivable cowardice and Zhenya’s wretchedly vain self-righteousness have you rooting for their lives to crumble – you just wish desperately that it wasn’t at poor Alyosha’s expense.
Zvyagintsev and co-writer Oleg Negin build up a palpable sense of dread as a resourceful volunteer army (the only adults in the film who come off at all well) hunts for Alyosha. Though there are some cathartic moments, notably the group’s leader calling Zhenya and Boris out for being such shits, most of the time is spent tightening the noose around Alyosha’s possible fate as the investigation reaches dead end after dead end. Time for humour is found too, with a profoundly unhelpful visit to Zhenya’s mother’s house funny despite the rampant nastiness of everyone involved, but for the most part Loveless is suitably austere.
Spivak and Ronin are exceedingly good in very difficult roles, even if it remains impossible to really empathise with either of them. It’s a problem that Loveless overcomes with the strength of its central story, but for a full impact, it could have done with having some saving grace for either of its leads. They resolutely learn nothing from their experiences, and though the indignant fury this creates in the audience may well be Zvyagintsev’s exact point, one he puts forward with ruthless efficacy, it makes for a very tough watch.