The spiritual and moral rot permeating modern Russian society—and by extension other nations as well—is a theme that Andrey Zvyagintsev has treated in his previous films—“Leviathan” and “Elena”—and it reappears in his latest, a somber piece about the disappearance of a child that on the surface is a procedural mystery but on a deeper level is a reflection on the narcissistic emptiness that lies at the center of so many lives.
Boris (Alexey Rozin), a salesman in a large firm, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), manager of a hair salon, are a middle-class Moscow couple working on the details of their divorce, like trying to sell their apartment. They no longer talk to one another as much as string together insults—she in loud, hysterical tones, and he in more hushed, sulky ones. Both have already taken on lovers: his is Masha (Marina Visilyeva), whom he’s already gotten pregnant, and hers Anton (Andris Keishs), a wealthy older man who escorts her to the finest restaurants, where everyone seems engaged in taking photos of themselves or their food.
There is a major problem, though: what to do with Alexei (Matvey Novikov), their twelve-year old son, who’s distraught over the breakup but hides his pain beneath a veneer of quiet despair? (In one wrenching scene, he’s shown crying behind a door as his parents have at one another.) Neither Boris nor Zhenya wants to take him: she suggests sending him to a boarding school, while he seems most worried about hiding the divorce from the owner of his firm, a fanatical Christian who demands a pristine family life of his employees.
The domestic chaos is just a reflection of the larger world gone mad. The year is 2012, and as Boris is driving to work he listens to a news report about the Mayan calendar predicting the imminent end of days, and the large percentage of the Russian populace that believe it to be true. Boris will soon be having a conversation with a sloppy pal at work (Roman Madyanov) about evading company knowledge of his marital difficulties: perhaps hiring a woman to come to the Christmas party with him would be an option.
Then little Alexei disappears. Both parents have been negligent, not even noticing that he’s gone until a day has passed (they were out with their lovers). Zhenya calls in the police, but the detective sent to investigate admits that the authorities don’t have the manpower—or, frankly, the inclination—to move quickly. He suggests that she contact a volunteer agency; she does, and before long a major effort, headed by Ivan (Alexey Fateev), a man whose skeptical attitude obviously sees through the familial discord, is underway. Small armies of searchers march through the surrounding area, shouting the boy’s name, though they won’t go beyond the river. (“We don’t look for bodies,” Ivan explains.) Boris and Zhenya even take a three-hour road trip to the isolated home of her widowed mother (Natalya Potapova), to investigate whether Alexei might have made his way there. But her venomous attitude toward them both only serves only to show that the domestic discord did not begin in the present generation.
Still, some progress is made in the investigation. A classmate of Alexei provides information on a secret place they sometimes holed up, and his jacket is found there. A visit to a hospital where a runaway meeting the boy’s description, and another to a morgue for the identification of a corpse, follow; but both merely reveal the depth of hatred between the parents. A postscript indicates that the experience has taught both of them very little.
Anyone hoping for consolation by the close of “Loveless” will be sorely disappointed. The film ends, as it begins, with shots of the frigid river near the complex where Boris, Zhenya and Alexei lived, the coldness of the wintry scene reflecting the emotional reality of the family dynamic.
But if the chilly ambience of the locale is undeniable, the ferocity of the performances adds dramatic heat to the story. Spivak and Potapova are the fiercest of the lot, while Rozin and Novikov bring a quieter intensity to the mix. Madyanov adds a touch of humor, but it’s of a very dark sort. On the technical side, the film is impeccable, with Mikail Krichman’s widescreen cinematography and Anna Mass’s editing leading the way. Evgeni Galperin’s morose score adds to the mood.
Told on a relatively modest scale—more like “Elena” than “Leviathan” in that regard—“Loveless” is another of Zvyagintsev’s lacerating portraits of a country—and a world—in decline.