“Loveless” is a heart-wrenching critique on modern mores. I found it deeply disturbing and haunting. Its subject is an unwanted child and his estranged, self-indulgent parents. This Russian film was nominated for Best Foreign Picture in 2018, and it is easy to see why.
Our protagonist, Alyosha, is a pre-pubescent 12 year-old, who we see walking to school through a winter river woodscape. The barren trees sway, and his red backpack provides the only color. We see him cry silent tears, and throughout the film, we never see him smile. The blond, crystal-eyed Matvey Novikov is the epitome of emotional pain. After twenty minutes of seeing him suffer so needlessly, viewers want to hold him and belly punch his divorcing parents.
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev was brilliant in his 2014 film “Leviathan”. ( reviewed http://www.filmflamb.wordpress.com on March 15th, 2015), but here there is no individual sacrificing for a central sovereignty. There is not even any giving up of a moment of personal pleasure for one’s own child. We see no caring or responsive parenting. The adult parents are selfish, self-serving, and ,at times, wanton.
In one breakfast scene, we see Alyosha’s mother snap, “ Drink your hot cocoa,” as the song “ It’s the End of the World” plays on the radio. Later, Alyosha’s father asks a co-worker , “ Do you think the world is about to end?” and we feel like his hardline Orthodox Christian boss may be into something amid the moral rot and secrecy.
The filming is arresting in its naturalness, a teacher closes her desks drawer, a boy drags a kite’s tail ribbon thorough the creek bank, a cafeteria tray rumbles down its chrome grid, and everywhere people are gazing out of windows as if they are trapped.
Alyosha’s mother, Zhenya, ( Maryana Spivak) has an older , wealthy 47 year-old boyfriend. She indulges in spas, physical workouts, selfies with girl friends, and endless, physical up-keep. She admits that she never loved her husband, Boris, or really anyone. Well, her mother when she was small. She got pregnant out of stupidity, and was afraid of abortion. She verbalized that she was repulsed by Alyosha and did not nurse him. There is no milk of human kindness in her. “Loveless” takes on another layer of meaning.
His father, Boris, (Aleksy Rozin ) has a younger pregnant girlfriend. She is insecure and nags him with questions about his romantic conquests. Somehow, she does not acknowledge his son’s presence. She is young, playful, and lives with her bitter mother. She tells Boris that she dreams of having a tooth pulled out. “What can that mean?” They laugh and decide to buy a watermelon.
Juxtaposed to this, is the missing son. Zhenya comes in late from a date and does not think to check Alyosha’s bedroom. He is gone two days from school and when the police are called, Alyosha is treated as a standard runaway. It is a long process. Police stats show that within seven to ten days, runaways usually return with a friend. Missing boy flyers are nailed to telephone poles and walls, volunteers coordinate searches, CCTV footage sites are combed, hospitals called; and, most arresting, the city morgue is visited before gramma’s house is travelled to as a last resort.
The gramma is called “Stalin in a skirt” by her son-in-law. She has watch dogs and barricades. She calls her daughter a whore. Her response to her missing grandson is to her daughter: “ You don’t seem too worried. Plan to stick me with your spawn?” Zhenya on the trip back tells Boris, again, that she never loved him, but just could not bear to live with her mother anymore. Boris halts the car, and kicks his wife out on the road. Meanwhile, Masha, Boris’ girlfriend, goes baby clothes hunting with her mother. She is feeling neglected.
The Moscow morgue scene is tense and suspenseful, and then a pushing match ensues. Even a crisis can not unite these two people, who have already started new lives making the same mistakes. Grim reality gets grimmer.
An abandoned building produces Alyosha’s coat. This is dangerous territory. A criminal case is opened up. We expect the worse. There is lack of progress. Viewers are pelted with Alyosha’s name being called out into the wind.
Time passes and we see Masha and Boris with their toddler. Boris throws his young son into a playpen. They are living in Masha’s Mother’s house. Zhenya and her lover, Anton, are watching tv. She leaves him to exercise on her outdoor treadmill. We see a close-up of a poster: “Lost in October 2012- Not seen since.”
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “ Loveless” could not be bleaker. And we are left not knowing, the worse punishment of all. The final shot shows us the kite’s ribbon hanging in the trees. This is an emotionally numbing experience made by a master.