International Cinema: Loveless (2017) - Reviewed

When we last saw Russian writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev back in 2014, he unleashed one of the bleakest films in world cinematic memory with Leviathan.  While that picture enjoyed global critical acclaim, it was also met with harsh criticism by one of the film’s key financiers: the Ministry of Culture.  Deemed a ‘defilement’ of the image of Russia, Leviathan while undeniably a masterwork forced the director to seek financing elsewhere for what would become his next project, Loveless
Though a distinctly Russian set and filmed project reuniting the director with the same collaborators behind Leviathan, Loveless was ultimately co-financed through French, Belgian, Russian and German production companies.  Still if any filmgoers thought the governmental disapproval of Zvyagintsev’s last project would soften the edges of his next film, think again.  The story of two parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), seething with hatred for one another whose lives are briefly and contentiously reunited upon the disappearance of their only child Alyosha (Matvei Novikov).  Like Leviathan, this slow and methodical burn of a film is dripping with contempt and offers as bleak of a portrait of modern Russian life as anything in the director’s deliberately dismal filmography. 
Inspired largely by the volunteer search-and-rescue group Liza Alert which Zvyagintsev incorporated into the film as well to contrast the director’s dismay with an ineffectual and uncaring police system, Loveless also functions as a loose reworking of Ingmar Bergman’s harrowing television series/film Scenes from a Marriage which turned the volume up on marital discord well past the eleventh decibel. 

Reuniting with screenwriter Oleg Negin and shot masterfully by Mikhail Krichman whose imagery is equal parts ornate and cruelly despairing, the world of Loveless depicts a modern Russia most viewers won’t want to live in.  Set in the fall on the cusp of winter, like Leviathan, everything is nearing a state of natural hibernation.  Watching this film in the summer will make you want to curl up in a blanket.  The film's particularly brooding score by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine comes down on the viewer's emotional state like hard rain staining the listener's soul black as pitch.
Then there’s the virulent nastiness of the couple, Zhenya and Boris, whose disdain for one another is so great it extends to their very only child being regarded as a “mistake”.  Performances by Spivak and Rozin as the spiteful couple are ruthlessly strong, so much so that most viewers will only want to spend a few moments with these people before running for the exits.  Zhenya is despicable and in a particularly difficult scene with her mother speaks to generational nastiness being passed down the familial bloodline.  Boris is pitiable but his own neglectfulness won’t win him any supporters either.
Running dangerously close towards misery porn, Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which includes real Liza Alert participants and is show in Moscow along the Skhodnya River competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.  Zvyagintsev went on to win the Jury Prize at Cannes and also garnered an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.  Commercially it performed fairly well though given the nature of Zvyagintsev’s films one is hard pressed to believe the filmmaker really cares about making money.

The only film in Zvyagintsev’s to receive a 4K digital release, Loveless is a tough film to sit through and I’m hard pressed to recommend it to anyone other than the most adventurous of cinephiles.  Like a Lars Von Trier film, it delights in scab pulling to ruminate on the varieties of pain stemming from an open wound.  There’s a powerful, quietly simmering maelstrom of a movie in Loveless but after viewing it is recommended that you take a brisk walk in broad daylight so not as to sink into a puddle of despondence.

--Andrew Kotwicki