by Bedatri D. Choudhury
Dir. Andrey Zvyagintsev, Russia, Sony Pictures Classics
In a recent interview, filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev insisted that the original Russian title for his film Nelyubov does not perfectly translate into the English title Loveless. Loveless is a state defined by its emptiness—a lack of love causing a void. But nelyubov, the director insisted, is more than that. It’s a kind of “non-love,” defined not only by the lack of love but also by the presence of something else taking its place. This “something else,” which eats into every vestige of affection once love disappears from our lives, is the crux of Zvyagintsev’s latest film.
The film’s bleakness is evident from its very first images—there are bare trees, a quiet stream, and soft and relentless snowfall. In the next scene, it’s autumn but we are not sure if the film is moving back or forward in time. Twelve-year-old Alexey walks home through the forest with fallen leaves crumpling under his shoes. He picks up a long piece of discarded tape and plays with it until it’s hanging from a treetop—fluttering in the wind, almost like a flag heralding some mysterious place only he knows the way to.
Once he is home, we see the first glimpses of what that “something else” really is; there is an unspoken heaviness in the air as we see prospective buyers coming to check out his parents’ apartment. Alexey pretends to read while his mother casually mentions to the visitors that she and her husband are divorcing. Once the visitors leave, his parents slam doors and shout at each other while Alexey crouches in an unnoticed corner and cries—thin shoulder bones jutting out from his white sleeveless t-shirt—his face contorted in sadness and pain.
His parents, Boris and Zhenya, are an incompatible couple; they hate each other and ignore their son. With their impending divorce, neither of them wants to keep him—Boris thinks a child should live with his mother, while Zhenya argues that at his age, he needs a father more, before adding that Boris is useless and that Alexey will go to a boarding school and then the army. On the professional front, Boris could well lose his job as a result of his home problems: his religious boss has laid down a corporate policy that demands his employees be married. The “something else” is becoming somewhat clearer; it is what remains of the hollow institution of marriage once companionship, love, and concern are gone from the equation. The disappearance of the emotional and romantic ideals of marriage is mirrored in the breakdown of the corporate-capitalist structure that insists upon it, at the cost of one’s happiness.
Zvyagintsev has previously made clear onscreen his ambivalence toward marriage, as either a church-ordained holy institution or the “happily ever after” culmination of romantic love. Elena (2011) shows marriage being manipulated into an instrument of greed, a means to amass wealth; meanwhile Leviathan (2014) depicts a violent marital rape and its female protagonist undergoing acute mental trauma from being publicly shamed for adultery. While waiting for their divorce to be finalized, the husband and wife in Loveless have full-fledged affairs—Boris with Masha, a much younger woman he has impregnated, and Zhenya with a much older man, Anton, who is affectionate but never tells her he loves her. They are so immersed in the details and perks of their respective affairs that they grow oblivious to the fact that they’re pushing Alexey to a point of despair.
The indoor scenes of the film are always dimly lit—people kiss and converse in darkness or, at best, in half-light. When the couples have sex, they are only illuminated by the lights of the city outside their windows. We don’t see Alexey’s face when he sobs before going to bed, and right after his parents have fought, their faces are only visible in silhouettes against the light of their phone screens.
Alexey suddenly disappears, which Zhenya realizes only when someone from his school calls in to check. There is a clear irony to the fact that Zhenya, who is so concerned with being up-to-date on everything happening in both her own world and in other people’s lives, has no idea when her own son goes missing. Unlike the teenager Roma in Leviathan, who runs away from home after seeing his father raping his mother, Alexey doesn’t return at night. When the police can’t find him, a voluntary rescue team is summoned and they comb the town. His mother isn’t sure who his friends are or what his hobbies are, and both parents are surprised when they are led to a secret hideout in an abandoned building that Alexey often visited, and where they only find his jacket.
Loveless’ critical look at the social institution of family is driven home even more clearly when the narrative introduces Alexey’s far from typically loving grandmother. She calls Zhenya a whore and tells her she’s leaving nothing to her. The film’s emotional crisis does nothing to any of the family members except strengthen their love for property and money. In most films, the loss of a child would likely bring estranged parents together, but in Loveless it only adds to the vicious anger slowly eating away at them. Zvyagintsev overturns the idea of romantic redemption; not only is there lovelessness, there is also a frustrating inability to care for another grieving human. Parenthood itself is a lost cause. Zhenya says she is repulsed by the memory of Alexey being born; meanwhile her lover Anton cannot get his own daughter to come see him, and Masha’s mother scoffs at her love for Boris and advises her to manipulate him like a child.
Zvyagintsev seems to be preoccupied with the idea of people losing their personal, emotional connections in a hyper-connected material world. (The director makes it clear that Zhenya is obsessed with her phone; she constantly checks social media updates and takes selfies and pictures of her food.) In Leviathan, the State—in an unholy union with the Church—tries to illegally usurp the protagonist’s piece of land to allegedly build a telecommunication tower; in Loveless, Zvyagintsev uses the visual metaphor of a large, TV antenna looming in the background when the search party can’t find Alexey anywhere, underscoring the fact that our sophisticated and modern communication devices can’t help us locate even a lost 12-year-old.
Zvyagintsev, a frank critic of the Putin government and a strong advocate of free elections in Russia, has often come under attack in his nation for his films, ther bleak and unkind portrayal of the country allegedly making them “anti-Russian.” Loveless’s depiction of an ugly divorce functions as a commentary on the dysfunctional post-Soviet, post-Communist Russia, where nothing holds value other than money and the desire to earn more of it. Zvyagintsev illustrates the gutting-out of Russian society as engineered by the rolling juggernaut of the government’s policies. The complete self-obsession of Boris and Zhenya, the absence of compassion and love, is symptomatic of this Russia undergoing, as Zvyagintsev said in an interview, a process of “re-Stalinization.” While Leviathan was a narrative of shocking personal and political betrayals, Loveless’ treacheries are communicated as a matter of course, as though the loss of love is the natural progression in a society governed by neo-fascists.