Leviathan, which was released in 2014, was met with acclaim from critics, but caused a stir with the Russian government. Thirty-five percent of the funding for the film had come from the Russian Ministry of Culture, and yet the less-than-glimmering portrait of the country that the movie presented was not what Putin’s Ministry had had in mind. Russian State Television subsequently shunned the film and pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergey Markov went as far as to brand it “an ideological justification for a genocide of the Russian people.”
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow-up, Loveless, is similarly something of an indictment, as it explores contemporary Russian society with a cold, surgical patience that, against all odds, makes the film all the more emotionally taxing.
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the middle of their divorce, which in itself seems to be an allegory for the split of Russian culture. Zhenya is moving up, a member of the economic elite, and takes just as much care of her outward appearance as she does her social media presence. Boris is under the thumb of his job at a conservative company, where news of his divorce will be so outside the expected norm that he risks getting fired. Caught between the two of them is their twelve-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov).
It’s Alexey’s disappearance that forms the crux of the plot. It’s telling as to the speed and tone of Loveless that it occurs a full hour into the movie. Zvyagintsev isn’t interested in action as much as he is interested in people. Not to spoil anything, but this isn’t a story that ends in reconciliation, and it’s not a story that begs for sympathy on any front, either. Alexey is missing for two days before his parents notice, as they’re off with their respective lovers instead of looking after him. He’s a secondary concern to them. It’s only when he’s gone that they’re spurred to care. Notably, the police basically dismiss their concerns as a case of running away from home. The local volunteers, however, organize an entire search brigade, and have multiple protocols in place for dealing with crises just like this.
Every single scene has a caustic edge to it. Even moments that should be tender are made bitter. Zhenya’s confession of love to her new boyfriend is followed by the musing that she’s never truly loved anyone before, not even Boris, and that she hadn’t wanted to have Alexey. In a similar position, Boris massages his new (pregnant) girlfriend’s doubts as to his commitment with platitudes. When she asks if he’d said the same things to Zhenya, he deflects. He can’t even lie and say no.
It makes the ensuing search all the more difficult to stomach. There’s some imagery that’s a bit too on the nose—the literal crumbling infrastructure, for instance—but when Zvyagintsev strays from the more realistic touch that has thus far defined his filmmaking, it’s with a purpose. There’s a reason that things have decayed to the point that they have; the hatefulness that the characters bear toward each other isn’t born out of nothing.
For how much is packed into it in terms of character studies and sociopolitical commentary, it’s a surprisingly sparse film. There’s an economy to the cinematography and to the music (there’s almost none, and what little there is is faint and dissonant) that pushes focus onto Zhenya and Boris. Though we see enough of their partners to get a grasp of them, they’re still just barely secondary characters. Loveless is a two-hander that happens to have other people in it, and Spivak and Rosin are both incredible to the point that the film occasionally feels like voyeurism: we’re not watching a movie, we’ve somehow become spectators to these very real people’s lives.
That said, for every character in a film to be so unkind is a bold gambit. (Alexey is the exception to the rule, but he haunts the film like a ghost rather than being a physical presence in it.) Zhenya and Boris are unfailingly cruel; they regularly scream at each other, and at one point Boris ditches Zhenya by the side of the road on the way back to the city. Whatever it was that initially brought them together is completely gone. It’s almost punishing to watch, especially as we know that this behavior is inherently part of them rather than simply brought out by the trauma of their circumstances. But how much of that can we begrudge them? They’re stuck in a society that threatens to choke them, and their attempts to break out of it—or at least to break into some place where they can be happy—has only placed more stress upon them.
Ultimately, there’s not really a central point to all of that pain, but Zvyagintsev isn’t looking to moralize. As evidenced by how long it takes to get the story moving, this is less a parable and more a portrait of a specific time, place, and people. It’s absolutely singular in that respect. Few filmmakers have the patience and talent necessary to pull off a film like this, and though Loveless may be specific in its setting, the corruption and bitterness of the society it presents is hardly alien.