Never has a film been so perfectly titled as Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. The pessimistic auteur has been praised by many as the next Andrei Tarkovsky, and while this may be a little rash, he is still undeniably responsible for crafting one of the decade’s great films: 2014’s Leviathan. His latest effort sees some of the blame so pointed towards the state in his previous feature pushed onto ourselves, tearing away the veil formerly concealing a loveless, materialistic Russia.
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are a married couple who decide that to pursue a better life for themselves, they must divorce. Unfortunately for them, they have a son together, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), of whom they care very little for; arguing as to whom will be forced to take custody of him. Their wishes are sickeningly granted when their neglected son disappears – which takes them a worrying two days to realise. Both distracted by new relationships, the couple must confront deep-rooted feelings of selfishness and search for the victim of their toxic relationship.
The work of many outstanding filmmakers – Tarkovsky, Kubrick, Bergman – can be indebted to symbolism. These directors understood the way that imagery, of which can seem disjointed from the wider narrative, can convey such deep and emotional meanings. This is a concept that Zvyagintsev acknowledges. Symbolism wholeheartedly enriches his work, and gives his film life beyond their relatively simple narratives. The complexity of his films remain in singular images, of which there are many, communicating an important point that can be read and dissected depending on your understanding of the image’s components. Compared to the artists mentioned, Zvyagintsev’s symbolism lacks a subtlety, but nevertheless, remains very powerful. There are many excellent examples in his latest film, of which departs with two shots drenched in meaning, the former of which is a little too obvious. However, the last shot confirms themes of curse and the spiritual; tragedy is doomed to repeat itself in a country under the illusion of progress.
The loss of a child takes on an allegorical form. Alyosha represents the innocence and purity of Russia, a child who at such a young age, buckles under the savagery of a surface-level society. A volunteer group who search for missing children can be seen as the country’s last hope; the only people remaining who have any compassion, and rather than simply searching for youth, they can be understood as searching for a future. They are a small group who remain unwilling to accept defeat, and the missing posters they plaster around bus stops and underpasses suggest an admirable determination. However, the camera shoots them as a small detail – the posters have a significance to those following the narrative, but to the passer-by, they are simply a tragic image with no personal meaning.
The Russia Zvyagintsev is presenting here is wrapped up in material wealth and status. In the first act, Zhenya shows potential buyers around their apartment with little enthusiasm for her family’s home. It is a place she wants to escape, but a place she hasn’t lived for months – she lives in her phone. As do many of the characters on screen, who are obsessed with capturing a false happiness, choosing to mask their reality with a smiling selfie. Most appear to be lying to and cheating one another, and there exists a conflict that extends from the characters very surroundings. The opening shots show a juxtaposition of nature, and the mess of buildings and technologies we have made for ourselves, and this is elaborated on throughout the narrative. Regarding story, tropes of the detective narrative are explored, but instead, Zvyagintsev decides to make exciting elements feel mundanely procedural, surrendering key climactic moments to formality. As the film progresses, a hopelessness burdens the characters and their audience, becoming unbearably straining until the director reaches a final statement.
The cynical comments on technology explored here are nothing new, but had to be made to enforce such a despondent vision of modernity. Loveless is ostensibly out of reach from the devastating impact of Leviathan, but this is indisputably a fantastic piece of work. Zvyagintsev departs with a final image, a shudderingly bleak portrait: innocence and benevolence once existed, and now missing, their mark on society remains visible to those who, by chance, decide to glance away from their phone screens to witness an imprint, a dash of colour amidst a cold world. A sad reminder of a possible future which could have been.