“Loveless” paints a bleak, captivating portrait of the painful anger of a broken family and of humanity’s capacity for connection and love.
The Russian-language film, subtitled in English, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy, Alexey, who disappears after overhearing a brutal fight between his divorcing parents. As the story unfolds, it becomes increasingly clear that the boy’s experience is only one part of the larger story involving the boy’s mother, Zhenya.
Zhenya, played by Maryana Spivak, gives a heart-wrenching and complex performance as a woman going through the unimaginable terror of a missing child, all while she deals with a brutal divorce. In nearly every scene in which Spivak is on camera, the audience is treated to a new layer to her characterization that helps viewers further understand Zhenya and how she became the emotionally stunted, angry woman she is at the start of the film.
In the film’s first act, Zhenya tells her boyfriend that he is the first and only person she has ever loved — a result of a tumultuous relationship with her cruel mother and a shotgun marriage with her philandering ex-husband.
As Zhenya’s backstory is further fleshed out, she becomes increasingly understandable and sympathetic. Spivak is a captivating force onscreen. The subtlest shifts in her face or body betray a rich and intricate inner world that pulls viewers in.
Aleksey Rozin’s Boris, Alexey’s father and Zhenya’s ex-husband, provides a stoic foil to Spivak’s brash emotion. The audience is given almost no insight into Boris’s backstory or motivations. Rozin’s performance is suitably enigmatic and borderline inaccessible, which works in his favor by adding a particular weight to the few moments when his vulnerability shows through.
The cinematography of director Andrey Zvyagintsev and cinematographer Mikhail Krichman perfectly captures the dark mood of the film. Several scenes were shot in a way that made the audience feel as if they were in the room with the characters. For example, one scene features a volunteer search and rescue team maintaining their line as they scour a forest for Alexey. The camera moves in tandem with their steps, deputizing each viewer as a volunteer and feeding off the crowd’s desire to find the boy.
The camera often fixates on a stationary scene — particularly on images of the forest — and imbues them with a sense of melancholy. In fact, the first few shots of the film are extended wide shots of a forest, followed by a long, stationary shot of a school door seconds before students come rushing out, a shot that is recreated near the end of the film. The image of the children surrounded by such a wide rural landscape evokes a strong and prevailing sense of isolation.
These stills are redolent of the work of another great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky — particularly his film “Nostalghia,” which features similarly bleak yet beautiful still-life images. “Loveless,” Zvyagintsev and Krichman’s fifth collaboration, cements the pair as Tarkovsky’s heirs apparent, proving that the duo is more than capable of taking on the mantle of the esteemed Soviet director.
Film score composers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine embody the maxim of “less is more” in their score, which further enhances the sense of loss and emptiness in the film while still grounding the film in reality. The little music present in the film is soft, evocative and ethereal, both contrasting and complementing the desolate narrative and cinematography.
The film’s closest American analogue is “Manchester by the Sea,” but where “Manchester” maintained a one-note depiction of grief — draining the viewers of any sympathy or sorrow via exhaustion — “Loveless” maintains a compelling arc throughout. Each moment is an important piece that fits into the overarching story while furthering character development and the audience’s engagement.
“Loveless” is not for everyone. The subject matter is heavy and is dealt with in a frank, bleak manner. Moreover, there are two explicit sex scenes; while both are narratively justified and add character development, some may find these moments uncomfortable. Additionally, because the film’s audio is in Russian, viewers who dislike foreign-language films might want to steer clear.
Still, if none of these characteristics dissuade you, run to see “Loveless.” The incredibly powerful film achieves the perfect cross between compelling and artistic, presenting depth without pretension.