The Russian-made Loveless (2018)highlights the different cinematic traditions of the East and Western blocs. In simple terms, the film displays the East’s understanding of creative minimalism in contrast to the West’s preference for excess: ‘less is more’ versus ‘more is never enough’. Both narratively and in cinematography, Lovelessis a searing ultra-minimalist indictment of Russian society today.
We enter the story through the eyes of 12-year old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) dawdling home from school. He is in no rush as his family life is a battleground between divorcing parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin). Most separating parents fight for custody, but these are fighting againstcustody because caring for Alyosha is inconvenient for their new love interests. The 12-year old hears everything and knows he is unwanted. One day, Zhenya learns that Alyosha has missed some days of schooling. She had not noticed, thinking he was with his father while Boris thought the opposite. Police are soon notified and refer the parents to a voluntary missing persons search organisation as Russian police ‘do not handle such matters’. The rest of the film follows the detailed search against a background of toxic parental squabbling and scant regard for the fate of their son.
The most outstanding feature of this film is the starkly realistic way it portrays emotional shallowness. While Zhenya and Boris displayfeelings expected of parents in their situation, we sense a difference between ‘genuine’ and ‘expected’ emotion. Nothing in their words or actions earns our empathy or sympathy. They emote externally but are privately outraged over the inconvenience of the search and the impact on their divorce affairs. Despite its simple title, Loveless is a complex essay about parents incapable of loving their own child who is struggling to survive in a society that stifles love itself.
Whether you see Loveless as a statement about modern Russia or a broader essay on contemporary materialism depends on how literally you read the signs. Selfish parents exist everywhere but the film’s penultimate scene is unambivalent. Several years after the search, we find Boris repeating history in his loveless handling of new offspring. We see also the self-absorbed Zhenya in an expensive garden apartment with a new wealthy partner, still obsessed with keeping up appearances. She steps onto a high-tech treadmill wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with the single word ‘Russia’. Not subtle, but the director’s message is unmistakable: in the process of modernisation, Russia has absorbed the worst of the West.
In light of Russia’s political history, it should not be surprising to see a story in which the disappearance of a human being is so quickly normalised. As a movie, it is too bleak to be entertaining and too tense to be enjoyable. But it is certainly an engrossing and disturbing glimpse behind today’s translucent iron curtain.
Director: Andrey Svyagintsev
Stars; Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozinm, Matvey Novikov