By Joshua Greally
With February being the month of love, let us take a look at a movie that has just gotten a wide release after touring the festival circuit last year. The film is up for the best foreign language trophy at the Oscars and does not have a hint of love in its body.
Loveless is a Russian film that tells the story of Zhenya and Boris. A couple in the midst of a heated divorce who clearly have moved on to better pastures with new partners and can hardly stomach being in the same room with each other. Their young son Alyosha is the one most affected though, as his mother belittles him and his father hardly has any time for him. But one day Alyosha goes missing, and so the estranged parents must band together to try and find their missing son.
From the synopsis, Loveless sounds like something akin to a buddy cop movie. A bad situation arises and two people who cannot stand each other are forced to team up in order to reach a common goal. And from that synopsis, it would be easy to assume that this plot is based on getting the parents back together. But believe me, it is not. As summed up in the title, this movie has no love for its main characters. They are shown as selfish, angry and despicable people who will clearly never get back together and in fact, often use the disappearance of their son as a way to cut into each other emotionally. But this is part of what makes Loveless a must see.
Unlike many Hollywood films, Loveless is fully aware that in real life when people fall out of marriages it is very rare that people will end on good terms and often times both partners can be very venomous towards each other, with children often being seen as little more than excuses to hurt one another. But both of Zhenya and Boris, despite their sometimes-hyperbolic hatred for one another, are very recognisably human. They hate each other, but in the scenes, with their new spouses, we see that all they really want is to be with someone who loves them.
This ultimately seems to be the reason why they hate each other and are neglectful towards their son. Alyosha is a constant reminder of their unhappy past and being forced to be together only served to highlight how much they may have once loved each other and how far they have fallen since those days. In fact, tracking down their son seems to feel more like an obligation than something that either of the characters wants to do.
This can be read as an allegory for the state of Russian society at the moment, with Russia’s future being torn apart by its unhappy past but it also functions as a very dark character drama. And the film mostly succeeds because these characters are deeply flawed but we are given enough subtle reasons to empathise with them. Which only makes the proceeding film even more devastating because we the audience want to believe in the best possible outcome for everyone…even though we know for a fact that it isn’t coming. Leading to a finale that is incredibly powerful.
Another reason the film succeeds is that both of the lead actors give amazing performances. It would be very easy for both characters to seem like cartoons with how the script calls for them to act so hostile towards each other but as previously stated both actors help us to see the humanity in their plight and come across as very natural.
Maryana Spivak who plays Zhenya is the clear MVP of the production though. She sells the destructive anger of a distraught wife being forced to co-operate with a husband she believes she wasted her life with, but she also manages to show a loving side when it comes to her new lover and she is haunting at showing the emotions of motherhood (although she goes to darker places than many Hollywood mothers would).
Director Andrey Zvyagintsev, who previously directed the critically acclaimed Leviathan, also uses this film as an opportunity to show off in regards to how well he can direct actors. He has very clearly been influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a marriage. As like that iconic mini-series Loveless places, a lot of emphasis on excruciatingly long takes that serve to show off the actors performances rather than any complex camera movements. Shots will often starkly stare at the actors as they relay their feelings, stories and personal philosophies which coupled with the most naturalistic performances helps us as viewers feel like we’re voyeurs watching actual people. This, in turn, makes the drama much more affecting because of how realistic and un-stagy the direction of these characters feels.
Regarding flaws, the actors can occasionally lapse into playing their emotions a bit too theatrically which lessens the real pain and anger that they are able to showcase most of the time. The film also seems to take it as read that the audience will react in a certain way. We are given very little time to get to know Alyosha before he disappears and although the young actor is very good in the role we aren’t really given much of a personality for us to latch on to. We seem to be expected to be sad because of the situation rather than because we actually care about his character. And the lack of conventional character development can leave the film feeling a bit hollow sometimes.
With all of those flaws being present though Loveless is still one of the best films to come out of last year. Its brutal story combined with allegorical, but still compelling characters, played by actors who are able to showcase amazing performances that make their characters feel three dimensional. This is further compounded by impressive direction and an ending that may leave some viewers speechless. Give it a watch if you have a strong constitution.