Loveless (Nelyubov) (2017)

Loveless first published by

Loveless (Nelyubov) is a film of empty spaces and aching absences. It opens with various shots of a wintry riverside, all snow, still waters and dead trees – the audible chirping of birds being the only signs of life. We might as well be witnessing an apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic scene, but in fact this is a suburb of Moscow, and if the camera were adopting a slightly different angle, we would be able to see residential highrise in the distance. Still, there is apocalypse in the air, as the 12th December, 2012 approaches – a doomsday in the Mayan calendar, as we later hear being discussed on the radio. 

Meanwhile, within an elevated apartment, a different kind of societal breakdown is taking place. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are undergoing a very bitter divorce, full of rancour and recrimination. They bicker, they shout, they behave unreasonably – and lost in the middle is their 12-year-old son Alexey (Matvey Novikov), not wanted for custody by either parent, and made a casualty of their domestic lovelessness. Alexey does not share a single on-screen moment in this film with his father.  At best the boy endures vicious verbal sniping from Zhenya – not once does she show him kindness or consideration, despite his obvious suffering at the collapse of his home life – and at worst his silent anguish goes entirely unnoticed, except, in one thoroughly harrowing shot, by us. 

As they try to sell the apartment and avoid each other’s unwelcome presence, Zhenya and Boris go about their separate lives. Boris sleeps over at the flat that his heavily pregnant new girlfriend Masha (Marina Basilyeva) shares with her mother, while Zhenya spends the night with the older, richer Anton (Andris Keišs). It is as if both parents have forgotten all about Alexey, and as we watch these scenes unfold, perhaps we have too. Indeed, it is almost as if Alexey were not there at all – and then, suddenly, he isn’t, although it takes an alarmed call from his school for Zhenya to realise this. The boy has vanished, and as the hours, and then days, mount up without word from him, Zhenya and Boris find themselves first turning to the overworked police for help, and then to a volunteer search-and-rescue team that operates with military efficiency. Soon, they have joined a large search party, going through more empty spaces – icy woodlands, abandoned buildings, stairwells, underpasses and morgues – hoping beyond hope to find any sign of the missing boy, or of the love that they ought to feel for him. 

Eventually, as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), the quest will come to an end, and a prickly normality will resume. For while Alexey may be the film’s absent focus, this is also a slow-motion portrait of two people lost in their lives and longing for change, even as it seems obvious that Zhenya is becoming like her mother (the mother whom she has been forever trying to leave behind her), and that Boris may well grow as weary of Masha and their new child as he already was of Zhenya and Alexey.

Here things recur in cycles, and history is doomed to repeat itself. The last time we see Zhenya, she is, significantly, running on a treadmill – in constant, sweaty motion, yet getting nowhere. That she is ostentatiously wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the word ‘Russia’ brings to her forward-facing but directionless stasis an overt dimension of national allegory. For after his last film, Leviathan (2014), saw him in trouble with the authorities for its criticisms of Russian corruption, director Andrey Zvyaginstev (The Return, 2003; The Banishment, 2008; Elena, 2011) has availed himself of independent financing to craft another resonant state-of-the-nation parable about a country that seems unable to break free of its own institutionalised dysfunction. In the Russia of 2012, when the film begins, there were real hopes for political reform and a (no doubt difficult) divorce from the past – but by the time the film ends a year or so later, the TV is filled with propagandistic news of military build-ups and Ukrainian incursions, and despite now living with new partners, Zhenya and Boris seem to be right back where they started. Nothing has changed, even as Russia’s real future remains both undiscovered and barely remembered – a tattered poster child for a generational shift that has never been able to reach its full maturity. The results are chilling. 

Summary: In Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film of wintry loss, the lack of love in a disintegrating family gives way to a more haunting absence

© Anton Bitel