Why do we go to the cinema? If the word ‘escapism’ popped into your head, you’re probably on the right track – of the twenty highest-grossing films worldwide in 2017, only two of them were set in the ‘real’ world (Dunkirk and The Fate of the Furious, though I use the term ‘real’ loosely in the case of the latter). In our current times of global political unrest, it seems unsurprising that studios so often turn to superheroes and spaceships to get audiences on board.
Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, however, has very different ideas about the purpose of cinema. His timely tragedy Loveless, which arrives in UK cinemas just in time for Valentine’s Day, acts as a gentle reminder that people are selfish monsters, love is a lie and the world has gone to shit.
After a beautiful and brief visual prologue showing snow gently falling over an icy river – this is just about as much warmth the film has to offer – we follow the 12-year-old Alexey (Matvey Novikov) from school to his Moscow home, where he lives with his neglectful mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak). She is in the midst of a bitter divorce with Boris (Alexei Rozin), and as soon as he returns from work the pair begin to argue about where Alexey fits into their separation agreement. Neither want the child (it’s implied they’ve already tried offloading him to her mother) and when their communication breaks down into petty insults Zhenya storms to the bathroom. Returning to kitchen for another barrage of verbal abuse, she closes the kitchen door. Hiding in the shadows behind the door is Alexey, who lets out a silent scream that echoes loudly throughout the film.
Loveless is a patient film. We spend a good amount of time finding out about the divorcing pair’s respective new partners; so much time that it seems as if Zvyagintsev is daring us to forget about their child entirely. Boris and Zhenya certainly do, and so it comes as a surprise to them when the school rings to tell them that Alexey has been missing for two days. The rest of the film focuses on the efforts of the community to find the boy.
As a search team combs the forests on the outskirts of town, the camera embarks on its own investigation of the area. It glides over certain areas of terrain, lingers on one passer-by, wanders off with another. In a more familiar film, these might act as clues to what has actually happened to the missing child. Here, Zvyagintsev seems less interested in plot than in evoking a cold, uncaring world – a vision made complete by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman’s beautiful rendition of a soulless city and the dissonant, minimalist soundtrack by brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine.
A static long take of Alexey’s school recalls Michael Haneke’s Caché (2005); so too does the film’s deft blending of familial horror and political allegory. It’s no coincidence that the film begins in late 2012 with a radio newsflash revealing that officials are meeting ‘to consider legislation to restrict spread of apocalyptic propaganda’ (referring to the alleged doomsday predicted by Mayan calendars) and ends in early 2015 in the wake of the annexation of Crimea. It’s tempting to see the whole story of uncaring parents losing their child as a commentary on the Ukrainian crisis, but such a reading might be a little reductive. As much as Loveless is critical of Russia, it’s target is much broader – the domestic troubles of Zhenya and Boris seem to represent the moral apocalypse of a generation.
Not all of the film’s shots land, however. Loveless is populated by characters intent on mindlessly distracting themselves with sex and screens, and it’s in Zvyagintsev’s shallow swipes at modern technology and social media that a needlessly cynical attitude starts to creep in. Using smartphones as shorthand for narcissism and superficiality is already a tired trope in mainstream and arthouse cinema, so it’s frustrating when the film stoops to illicit contempt for a group of women taking a group selfie, for example.
But, come the film’s understatedly brutal final moments, it’s not the film’s clumsy handling of selfie culture that lingers in the mind. Rather, it’s the cutting vision of a humanity characterised by selfishness and neglect. Cinema can transport us to fantastical worlds, but it also has the power to hold up a mirror to our own world. Loveless forces us to confront an uglier reflection than we might expect.
Image: Altitude Films