Russian director Zvyagintsev has been making films for well over a decade, but he only came to my attention with Leviathan, a 2014 film about the battle of wills between a small-time drunk and the pompous mayor of the town where he lives and the damage that battle wreaks on those around them. It was a good movie, even very good at times, but with Loveless, Zvyagintsev has made a true masterpiece. It’s the story of a marriage that has fallen into complete ugliness and bitterness that is then pulled back together after the only child of the bitter couple goes missing. The performances are nothing short of phenomenal, particularly those of Maryana Spivak & Aleksey Rozin as the married couple. Spivak is raw and nervy, right on the edge of breakdown, while Rozin gives a clenched fist of a performance, locked down tight, repressing his hate, rage and bitterness until you can only see these things in his eyes. Alexey Fateev deserves special notice as well for his performance as the search coordinator investigating the disappearance; it’s a part that could be simple, but as he’s written and played, the coordinator is an abrasive, passive-aggressive jerk. It’s a good thing all around, this notion Zvyagintsev has about making all of his characters unlikable. Right from the opening, a cruel argument between the two main characters, he orients you to this grim world where the only thing that can make people tolerate each other is the common goal of surviving tragedy and even that is only fleeting. This is echoed in the aesthetic of the film and, even though the film itself is not exactly a pleasant watch, so grueling is the experience of the characters, it is a beautifully rendered film. It takes place in a desolate urban environment, all brutal concrete buildings and austere moods. The entire film is caught in a grey, hazy bubble, the sky a constant grey, often with a heavy snowfall. I’m pretty sure we never see the sun in this film and it’s bleak, but also beautifully framed and realized. It’s not a pretty film, but it’s a beautiful one, in its own haunting way. And Zvyagintsev is getting at something about Russia too; the city is dilapidated, filled with empty ruins and broken down buildings. There’s an oppressive sense of doom that hangs over this movie and you can’t help but feel it’s reflective of the mood of a broken country. Part of this deep darkness is the way in which the movie leads you down paths to moments that, in more generic films, would be significant moments, but in this movie are simply moments of powerlessness and insignificance. In one scene, we watch for a long moment as a pedestrian pauses at a poster of the missing boy and stares at it for a long time; but this isn’t a moment the plot hinges on – the man eventually just turns and walks away. We never see him again; just like everyone else in this film, he knows nothing and has nothing to offer. Loveless is a grueling film, emotionally draining and painful, but it’s a masterpiece from the ground up. Every shot, every performance, every line . . . it all creates a pervasive atmosphere of hopelessness and bitterness. It all adds up, in the end, to nothing. There’s no redemption here for anyone, not the parents, not the artist, not the audience. In its cynicism and its unflinching portrait of broken people in a broken city in a broken country, this film is only getting started with its title; it’s merciless too. 4 stars.
tl;dr – bleak story of a loveless marriage held together by crisis is an astonishing masterpiece; grueling, emotionally draining, but also near perfect in every way. 4 stars.