There is something about Loveless, Russia’s official Best Foreign Language Film entry at the 90th Academy Awards, that feels different from any other thriller of its kind. Unlike films such as Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, a film which, while quite good, is more focused on telling a similar story that is more primarily driven by the emotion of the scenario, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow up to Leviathan finds its gripping, brutal power in the opposite way by creating a cold and empty atmosphere. Following a separated couple who reunite after their 12 year old son disappears, Loveless is at its strongest as a bleak study of two sociopaths who push away their only son.
From the very beginning, we know that our protagonists, Zhenya and Boris, are truly devoid of selflessness and empathy. Immediately, we see this in our introduction to their son, Alexey, as he meanders on his way home from school, with Zvyagintsev lingering on the boy for an extended period of time. From here, it’s evident that this is the best part of Alexey’s day as he’s away from his parents, but we don’t realize this until we finally meet them.
In the case of Zhenya, her extreme loathing for her husband, Boris, has caused her to loathe Alexey in turn. This is because he is the sole product of their dead-on-arrival marriage, and that’s also why she refuses to keep him. Boris also wants nothing to do with Alexey because he doesn’t need him anymore. We find out that Boris was using Zhenya and him to get a job because it requires that all employees have their own families, but he is starting a new family in the midst of the separation. As both of them fight about what to do with their son, Zvyagintsev pans over to a shot of the boy bawling as he hears all of this, and from here, Zhenya and Boris have officially been painted as the true monsters that they are.
While we now know that these people are despicable individuals, Zvyagintsev makes it especially clear in some of the most exceptional direction of the year. For the remainder of the film’s first half, the focus remains solely on Zhenya and Boris as they try to rebuild their lives without each other. However, in doing this, Zvyagintsev completely ignores what Alexey is doing in this tumultuous time, as the last shot we see of the boy is him running out of his home for school in a moment that seems to resemble freedom. Because this takes up such a large amount of the run-time, we start to forget about Alexey much like Zhenya and Boris do. This leads us to be just as shocked as they are when it’s revealed that Alexey has disappeared. This is the first, but not the last time that we will see the selfishness of the protagonists cause them to suffer.
It’s bleak moments like these throughout Loveless that leave the audience feeling cold on the inside, which seems to be the film’s intent. Since we’re introduced to characters that are border-line sociopaths, we don’t truly feel sympathy for them because from their initial actions leading up to Alexey’s disappearance, they deserve to suffer. They’re so self absorbed that they can’t even stop bickering and tearing each other apart during the actual search itself. So as we watch them suffer throughout the search, the only person that we truly feel empathetic for is Alexey, a young boy whose mind was corrupted by the hatred forced upon him by his tormenting parents. By allowing us to revel in the suffering of the protagonists, while still feeling awful about the situation, we’re left in such a grim place, but it allows the film to stand out and truly make us think about everything that has taken place on screen.
Without giving much more away, it’s best just to say that Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a film that will stick with audiences for a very long time. In its bleak tragedy, we feel absolutely cold, but that feeling allows the film to stand out on its own as a unique take on the missing persons scenario. It also shows that Zvyagintsev is a brilliant and meticulous director who does a great job at creating an unpredictable and tense piece that will provoke feelings of frustration, empathy, and coldness. It’s a powerful yet slow moving work of art that ought to be seen as soon as possible, and will hopefully be recognized at this year’s Academy Awards.
(Featured Image: Loveless, Sony Pictures Classics)