How does one paint a wide-angled condemnation of society by pointedly focussing on the epicentre of a crumbling marriage? Ask Andrey Zvyagintsev. He’s a master at it.
Loveless marks the fifth film in his career as a director, and my goodness, is it his most callous and unflinching work yet. It follows the relationship between Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), a married couple in the middle of hashing out a bitter divorce, the culmination of many angry years spent resenting each other. The seething, vitriolic loathing they hurl at each other blackens every single frame and creates a bruised, aching sensation similar to the one I imagine is felt after a bad time in a boxing ring. Things at home aren’t very cheerful, to say the least.
Boris and Zhenya are dead-set on securing their separation as quickly and finitely as possible – they are both planning their future with their respective new partners – however neither of the two (especially Zhenya, who’s visible personal release comes from screaming into her husband’s face with palpable mania) can resist baiting the other with ear-shatteringly crude insults. Acidic dialogue coupled with expertly demented acting from Rozin and Spivak see that the dynamic between the two is horribly enchanting, an unfolding disaster you can’t help but be transfixed to.
One night (we’re given the impression that this is one of many) their arguments are overheard by their young son Alyosha (played by Matvey Novikov), who, in sporadic bursts of tears permeated with dejected emotional distance, is showing all signs of neglect, the product of a situation which can only be described using the film’s title. After being shown in a truly unsettling picture of contorted grief, hidden away in a cupboard and silently screaming, he vanishes. This throws a spanner in the works for his parents, who never wanted a child together but are now compelled to search for him. This is the most attention the pair have paid to their son in years, it seems, and allows them a period of reflection on the factors that contributed to his existence in the first place; mainly that they married and became pregnant far too young, with no way out. Their boy was a burden in the womb, and with every passing day, a heftier encumbrance which only served to remind them of their stagnating marriage. It takes them a staggeringly long period of time to realise that perhaps Alyosha knew this fact all too well.
It’s a work of masterful cruelty to see these two dislikeable individuals punished for their selfishness, and forced to endure their own specific hell – each other – out of nothing else but obligation to the state. If there’s ever a point where Loveless feels as though it’s about to tell a redemption story, this idea is quashed with the immediate realisation that these two characters, while perhaps in a relationship so dysfunctional as to be somewhat empathised with, are both woefully irredeemable.
It’s difficult to ascertain the focal point of Zvyagintsev’s reprimand here; he demonstrates extraordinary agility as a storyteller, niftily pointing a lens at so many of his country’s issues that the overall takeaway is his utter displease with society itself, in all of its unscrupulousness. If it’s not Boris’ reluctance to assert himself, buckling under the pressure piled on by those around him for his lack of bullish masculinity, it’s the ominous threat presented by the elderly matriarchs in the film who seem desperate to mould their children in their own image. For all the film has a truly rotten core, its message refuses to collapse in on itself. It knows what it wants to attack, and does so relentlessly.
It’s also quite clear that there is blame to place everywhere for Alyosha’s disappearance. Use of a distinctly political tone provides number of tools to provide context to characters and really embed them in the fabric of their environment in its current climate. Boris drives to work with the radio on, and we hear news stories of military coups and Crimean annexations which sound apocalyptic and dystopian enough to feel fictitious, but of course are shudderingly realistic. In one of the most interesting scenes of the film, he is seen having a conversation with his colleague about the stringently enforced marriage policy enforced on all employees. ‘People only divorce when they die’, his friend says. In other words, you’re either trapped, or jobless.
In a society which removes autonomy from its citizens in this manner, we find that the film is perfectly poised to pose its true question. Would Alyosha have been so neglected had his parents not felt constrained to remain together by both internal family pressures and external societal norms? Loveless knows the answer to that question, and executes its response with marvellous efficiency. It’s the authoritarian suffocation impacted by this regime which has prevented the cathartic separation which would have prevented this tragedy, and all those suffering under it are to pay for its effects.
Loveless is screening at Glasgow Film Theatre between the 9th of February – 21st of February. Anyone aged between 15 and 25 can get a free card from GFT that entitles them to £5.50 tickets to any standard screening.
15-25 cardholders also get 2-for-1 tickets to see Loveless at Glasgow Film Theatre when they use the code loveless241! The code can be used online (as long as you’re logged in with your 15-25 card membership email) or at box office on presentation of a valid 15-25 card.
By Maisie McGregor