Film Reviews


Published April 26, 2018
Boris and Zhenya share another happy moment in 'Loveless'

“Do you think the world is about to end?” one of the characters in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless asks a workmate. “Definitely!” comes the reply. It’s as close as this ruthless portrait of contemporary Russian life gets to comedy.
Zvyagintsev’s enemies accuse him of taking a “negative” view of Russia, but what are the positives? Thirty years on from the end of the Soviet Union the country still functions as a single-party state under an all-powerful Supreme Leader. Crime and corruption still flourish, Russian forces are still engaged with wars and skirmishes on the borders. Under a market-based economy a handful of Russians have grown immensely rich while the rest of the population scrapes by.
A recent study found that Russia is the most unequal country in the world today, with almost two thirds of its wealth in the hands of millionaires. This means there is little room for a middle-class – historically the safeguard of democracy and other civil institutions.
If the Russians aren’t protesting in the streets it’s not simply because they fear the consequences, it’s because they remember the dismal barrenness of the communist era. In comparison, life in Russia today offers at least the chance of a better career and income, along with the consolations of lifestyles and popular culture.
This is what Zvyaginstev finds so alarming. He shows us a country in which people have traded in their freedoms for the iPhone, for television, for nightclubs, for small apartments in ugly new tower blocks. Materialism and hedonism have become the twin faiths around which everyday life revolves, as people grow more selfish, mean and superficial.
In his previous movie, Leviathan (2014), Zvyaginstev took us to the provinces, where one man fought in vain against corrupt authorities. Loveless is set in a city, in a suburb where apartment blocks rise like a forest, fringed by wasteland. It could be anywhere in Russia. The director has developed his own melancholy poetry of dull concrete, weary trees and shrubs, abandoned buildings and refuse.
Every day, 12-year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) makes his way home from school across a patch of scubby forest to an apartment in one of the towers. It’s a comfortable flat, but not a happy home. His parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), are divorcing, and can barely stand the sight of each other. Focused on their future freedom, they see Alyosha as an irritating reminder of their failures. Boris would like the boy to stay with his mother, but Zhenya thinks he’d be better off with his father. If they can’t reach an agreement he’ll just have to be sent to a home.
Alyosha eavesdrops on these debates, listening in terror while his future is decided, being left in no doubt that he is surplus to requirements. One stark scene finds him hiding behind a door, shaking with misery.
Her son’s constant crying only makes Zhenya more contemptuous. She feels she has sacrificed her best years to a man she never loved, and now wants to have fun. The mobile phone is never out of Zhenya’s hand. She spends hours in the beauty parlour, making herself desirable for her attentive new lover, a wealthy divorcee called Anton (Andris Keiss).
Boris is less abrasive but he is patently uninterested in anything but himself. He has hooked up with Masha (Maria Vasileva), a young woman who is already heavily pregnant with his next child. His biggest concern is that his boss, an Orthodox believer, might give him the sack if he learns about the divorce. Alyosha is nothing but a further complication.
Zhenya and Boris are thoroughly repulsive, but utterly ordinary in their attitudes and aspirations. They are forced to act like parents when Alyosha runs away, sparking an enormous search by a team of volunteers. As part of the manhunt they visit Zhenya’s mother, an elderly volcano of misanthropy that makes her daughter’s mindset slightly understandable.
A more forgiving director would show Zhenya and Boris transformed by this crisis, suddenly aware of their love for Alyosha. Zvyaginstev is not so easily convinced and not about to give us a Hollywood ending. Although they play the role of doting parents, Zhenya and Boris are never convincing. As the search goes on and on, gloom and despair descend like a curtain. The action takes place against a constant backdrop of radio and television reports, which act like a commentary on the complacency of a society that has lost sight of the most important things in life.
What makes this film so impressive is the way the director uses every tiny detail to add emphasis to the story. We feel the film is full of clues, (or red herrings?) that could explain where Alyosha has gone. There are moments when we could feel compassion for Zhenya and Boris, but by the end of the movie it’s clear that their hollowness is incurable.
One of the stock characters of the 19th century Russian novel was the superfluous man – the character who could never settle on a useful occupation or hold to any set of beliefs. In Zvyagintsev’s vision of 21st century Russia, Zhenya and Boris are representative of an entire generation of superfluous people. The characters in Turgenev’s stories were tortured by their superfluity, but Zvyaginstev’s characters are so lacking in self-awareness they can’t even explain their unhappiness. They know there’s a wonderful life out there but there’ll always be something or someone else to blame if it never arrives.

Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev
Written by Oleg Negin & Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov, Marina Vasileva, Andris Keiss, Aleksey Fateev
Russia/France/Germany/Belgium/USA, rated MA 15+, 127 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 April, 2018