After causing uproar in Russia with his 2014 Oscar-winning film Leviathan, director Andrey Zvyaginstev returns with Loveless, a bleak, uncompromising story about a couple, Zhenya and Boris, going through a divorce and how they cope with the disappearance of their child, Alexey.
Loveless has already obtained the Cannes Film Festival Grand Jury Prize as well as Oscar and BAFTA nominations for Best Foreign Language Film, and it is not hard to see why. This is a profound film and a cautionary tale for when our own egotism overshadows our capacity for empathy.
The key theme of the film is love and the absence of love, as suggested in the title. In the Q&A following the film, director Zvyaginstev commented that he sees the art of cinema as being able to compress large concepts into a limited time frame, such as love, empathy and egoism. “That is my answer,” he says, to the problems of the characters.
As such, Zhenya and Boris’ fatal flaws are that they fail to see the bigger picture beyond the present moment. Zvyaginstev never truly treats his characters as sympathetic; their constant feuding and verbal abuse towards each other is the driving force of the film, as their conflict obstructs the search for Alexey. Brilliantly portrayed by Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin, their characters are more concerned with how the disappearance of Alexey will reflect on themselves as opposed to the worrying about the safety of their child.
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Interpersonal connection is realised through the symbols of social media and phones that are weaved through the fabric of the story – for every beat of genuine emotion, a character is then engrossed in their device. Zvyaginstev depicts the irony of being connected with the world and, ironically, disconnected from meaningful, human interaction.
In the Q&A, both producer and director emphasised the need for humanity to take a look at itself in the mirror. Through the presentation of the main characters, the film argues that we need to transcend momentary egocentricity and be sincere in the world around us. The film masterfully conveys big ideas without over-explaining them. Combined with a sombre and dreary tone reminiscent of the Coen Brother’s No Country for Old Men, Loveless absorbs the viewer with its relentless gloom and melancholy.
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Loveless is not only a story about relationship dynamics, but also of contemporary political issues in Russia. The cinematography is desaturated, with harsh-lighting serving to emphasise every gritty detail of Moscow and its surrounding areas. The landscapes are barren and the city is portrayed as grey, emotionally vacant and bureaucratic. The setting and its characters are intertwined and stuck in their old ways, refusing to progress.
The soundtrack is also bleak, often consisting of a piano being hit harder and harder till it reaches a climax, or an ensemble of violins which almost play out like a drone. The result is the depiction of modern Russia as a country that is plagued by its traditional government and the people who are blindly supportive of them.
While the film is dominated by its dreariness, there is still an underlying optimism presented through the voluntary search teams. Zvyaginstev mentioned in the Q&A how these particular voluntary groups in Moscow were the main source of inspiration for his co-writer of the film. The volunteer movement seemingly had a profound effect on the filmmaker; it showed him that people can come together in times of tragedy and display a form of unity and love. For all the divisions of the film, there is a glimmer of togetherness and hope.
We had a great night watching Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless, and listening in on a fascinating Q&A session with the director and producer. Highly-recommended! pic.twitter.com/qI7Bd67Qeu
— RSS@Nottingham (@RSSNottingham) January 30, 2018
The film does have several flaws, however. While it is generally subtle in its approach, allowing the audience to piece events together themselves, the beginning feels heavy-handed in its execution of exposition. Although recounting necessary information, it is presented all too straightforwardly with characters simply reciting the history of their lives. It sticks out mainly due to how subtle the rest of the film is. Another minor issue with the film is that it feels longer than its runtime. I was never particularly uninterested, however there were multiple points in which the film felt like it could have ended. The ending itself is good and presents a thematically circular narrative of sorts, but by that time I felt myself waiting for it to end any at moment.
In spite of its few issues, this is one of the most affecting foreign films I have seen in a while and it is well worth your time. With stellar performances, masterful directing and an unflinching, gritty realism of modern Moscow, this is a bleak but necessary film – and one that is very likely to pick up the awards it has been nominated for. Zvyaginstev is a director at the top of his game, and Loveless is another entry in an already brilliant body of work.
Featured image courtesy of Non-Stop Productions via IMDb.
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