★★★★ / ★★★★
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless” is no ordinary divorce story for it demands the viewer to look a little while longer and to consider more deeply. It is analytical, pragmatic, some might claim a bit impersonal or cold. But it works so beautifully despite its uncompromising approach. Once you’re in, it is impossible to look away. Place this film right alongside what’s considered to be the best Hollywood movies that deal with the subject of divorce. By comparison, what this work offers is much closer to reality because it abstains from traversing the expected dramatic parabola, the standard story beats, and the sudden sentimental realizations concerning the value of relationships regardless of the subjects deciding to stay together or not.
It seems to start off like a typical tale of divorce. From the minute the husband gets home from work, it is apparent he and his wife despise each other. They are not required to express their hatred overtly through screaming or yelling. It is in the sharp words they use to wound, the rate and delivery of unfair insults, the fact that they can’t even look at one another in the eye. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) deciding to sleep in different rooms is a natural conclusion. Clearly, both are eager to move on with their lives. But there is a question of what to do with their twelve-year-old son (Matvey Novikov). Neither of them wants him. He overhears. The next morning, he runs away.
Notice how the work takes its time. Following Alyosha’s departure, we spend ample time with the husband and wife—first while at work and then with their lovers. When with Boris at work, we experience his heavy anxiety because his boss is a devout Christian. Word has it that those who get divorced are let go from the company. And so he asks a co-worker how others who did get divorced circumvented getting fired. When with Zhenya at work, it is more relaxed. She works in a salon and so she feels freer with her girlfriends. We get a glimpse of a woman whom Boris might have fallen for once upon a time.
When Boris is with his lover (Marina Vasileva), we adopt the perspective of the woman. The sex scene is sensual, romantic, hidden in shadows. We note her youth and energy. She is several months pregnant. By contrast, when Zhenya is with her lover (Andrew Keiss), we see through the eyes of a man. The sex scene shows more skin. Positions are more overt. Breathing and moaning are louder. Shadows are not utilized as much. As with the former, there is an obvious age difference. The man is older and successful financially.
The director (who co-writes with Oleg Negin) employs these extended scenes not just to provide information about Alyosha’s parents or how they are with other people. It gives us time to consider how the lovers regard or value Boris and Zhenya. Is what we’re seeing real or just passing passion? How much do these lovers know about their partner’s home life? Do they even know about the child? I admired that the screenplay answers these questions in creative and sometimes elegant fashion. There is not a single awkward expository sequence in which relevant players sit down and divulge information.
Right in the center of this beguiling picture is Alyosha’s disappearance. From the moment a parent becomes aware that the boy might not have come home the night before, the work adapts the pacing, tone, and atmosphere of a procedural. We meet the detectives in charge. We get a feel of their personalities, their initial attitudes about the case in question, how they react to parents on the verge of lashing out. We sit through specific questions that require answers before an official investigation begins. We meet the volunteers. We learn about what they do, how good they are at their jobs, their energy and organization, how far they are willing to go to locate a missing person. Once in full gear, there is not a single minute wasted. There is an urgency to the search as well as exploring the themes of this particular story.
“Loveless” goes way beyond husband and wife who loathe one another having to put their differences aside and work together. It is about the passing of time and the increasing melancholy after every lead that ends in disappointment. Set during a Russian winter, I found it curious that whenever a scene happens to be unfolding indoors I couldn’t help my eyes darting toward a door or window and check whether the snow is falling. My heart ached for the boy—how cold, hungry, and miserable Alyosha must be out there, abandoned, unwanted.