Russia's foreign language Oscar nominee "Loveless " is a beautifully shot and elegantly constructed film about an already broken family in a moment of crisis and tragedy. It's also one that is so bleak and unpleasant to sit through, and sit with afterward, that I could honestly only recommend "Loveless" with extreme caution, if at all.
The film from director Andrey Zvyagintsev (the mastermind behind the similarly bleak "Leviathan") focuses in on Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), who share a 12-year-old child together and years of festering resentment and hate for one another. They've all-but dissolved their toxic relationship and moved on with other partners, Zhenya with an older, wealthier man with a grown daughter, and Boris with a younger, blonder and sweeter woman, who is already well into a pregnancy with his child. Zhenya is selling her apartment. Boris has moved in with his new girlfriend. And now they have to figure out what to do with their son, Alyosha, who neither of them wanted, and now want even less.
Alyosha, played by actor Matvey Novikov, is lanky and blonde and quiet. We barely get a line of dialogue out of him, and yet his performance is unforgettable. One night his parents are arguing over what to do with him, seemingly one-upping each other with their merciless wishes (boarding school, adoption, you name it). What they don't know, and what we don't know at first, is that Alyosha can hear them. Then the camera reveals that he's been there all along. Zvyagintsev spends maybe five seconds on his silently weeping face, but it is five seconds that will haunt you for the remainder of the movie and likely even after.
It is maybe the most powerful single shot of the year. Because the next day, after Boris and Zhenya retreat to their new relationships (and make love to their new partners in an extended and uncommonly naturalistic and explicit sequence), Alyosha goes missing.
In fact, by the time Zhenya, who is always looking at her phone, gets the message, he's been absent from school for two days already.
The film at this point becomes a slow-burning police procedural as authorities go through the appropriate steps to try to track down a missing child and the estranged parents attempt to tolerate each other through this process, which they both seem to think of as more of an inconvenience than anything else. This is a film that is so relentlessly cold-hearted that you get the sense that Zhenya and Boris might almost prefer it if their son doesn't turn up — they are so deeply selfish and resentful of his existence that him being gone would actually allow them both the fresh and baggage-free start they both crave.
The Russian setting, outside of Moscow, is similarly dreary — an uncomfortable combination of pristine modernity and decay in the grey and cold landscape — and the radio and television broadcast only news of war and destruction. Many have said "Loveless" is a kind of critique of Putin's Russia which is something that perhaps might not be so obvious to an international audience, especially when the microcosm of the actual plot is so riveting on its own. But it is just another layer in this unrelenting and difficult work of art.
And although there are perhaps brief moments of humanity embedded throughout, by the end you can't wait to get away from the unforgivingly selfish Zhenya and Boris. Whether or not the feeling of despair will dissipate after the credits roll, however, is another question entirely. Proceed with caution.
"Loveless," a Sony Pictures Classics release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for "strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image." Running time: 127 minutes. Three stars out of four.