“Russian life, Russian society and Russian anguish” are, according to producer Alexander Rodnyansky, the key themes examined in Loveless, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest and much lauded feature. Although resolutely Russian in its characterisations, setting and language, much is intended to be universally relatable, so that a wider audience may àlso be reached. This certainly seems to have been the case for what, to our marketplace, is “niche”, “specialist”, or “art house” viewing. The foreign funding, numerous accolades and the non-Russian-speaking audiences that followed are testament to the validity of such intent.
This is just as well, for the Russian State declined to fund this latest feature, following the subject matter of Zvyagintsev’s previous work; the equally praised Leviathan. There the director matter-of-factly dealt with systemic, bureaucratic corruption in Russian society; an elephant-in-the-room whose shadow still falls across many aspects of Russian life today. Acknowledging its existence is one thing, dissecting it openly in the full glare of the global media stage is something else entirely.
The director comments on the problem via Variety:
“Because it is set in contemporary Russia many people treat it as a critical depiction of the country. It divides audiences. Some people feel offended, and unfairly criticized. They definitely don’t appreciate a film that they believe shows the country’s bad side.”
But surely, the intent of the production was indeed to highlight the “bad”, -or at least: ‘problematic’ side of contemporary Russian society?
Although sold to Western audiences principally as a missing person case, this linear thread seems to exist for the purpose of momentum alone. The larger story lies within the cyclic cause and effect that wraps the narrative, and presents the central absence as a symptom of a greater, societal issue.
Boris and Zhenya are a dysfunctional, divorcing couple, each at the end of their respective ropes and barely glued together by the formalities of final paperwork, the disposal of property and the problematic issue of their 12 year old son, Alexey. This is an inverted custody case, with each side seeking to foist the tragically unwanted boy upon the other (or on a wholly unsuitable, borderline-psychotic grandmother), so that they may escape to lives anew, already in the making. Lives in which Alexey, seemingly, will play no part. Their gaze is elsewhere whilst their hapless, miserable child exists merely as a burden to be disposed of. Around them, final, familial disintegration takes place.
“Family” is too strong a word though, these are merely strangers in adjoining rooms, each waiting for their final, separate departure, Zhenya to her wealthier, older, supportive partner, Boris to his naive young girlfriend and Aleksey, seemingly, to the void. It was Boris’s infidelity and the resulting pregnancy that finally brought them here; pulling the pin on a marriage constructed on little more than base convenience. His fundamentalist, Orthodox boss insisted upon respectable, happy-family employees, whilst Zhenya sought to flee the pressure-cooker insanity of existence under the same roof as her increasingly bitter mother (the Grandmother in question). Loveless indeed, all of them.
Zhenya’s anger constantly rages fire against the wall of Boris’s near-mute stoicism; increasingly bitter and shrill, needling for the explosion that comes close but never quite arrives. Instead he plays the archetypal male role of “taking it” whilst mechanically plodding onwards, waiting out his time until life becomes, simply, something else. Even under the most heinous provocation, his response is to shut Zhenya down; abandoning her to silence and departing rather than engaging on her terms.
Preempting his abandonment after witnessing a particularly frank discourse, Alexy disappears; last seen as a distant figure fleeing on CCTV to destinations unknown, -although it is a full two days before his absence is noticed by his otherwise-occupied parents. After yet more recriminations, more rage from the hating Zhenya, and more brick-like pragmatism from the ineffectual Boris, the investigation slowly lumbers into motion, first at the hands of a semi-disinterested, unsympathetic and overstretched police force, then with help from a benevolent volunteer search-group. Meanwhile, a mere windowpane’s thickness away, the darkening weather turns and the first snows of winter fall. Time is now running out.
We conclude our look at Loveless next time.
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