Andrey Zvyagintsev’s last feature, Leviathan, marked him out as a master of capturing the distressing depths of his Russian homeland. That film, which somehow passed Vladimir Putin’s censors, was quietly condemnatory of the current and past regimes. The director’s latest, Loveless, has elements specific to Russia but also shifts its crosshairs onto modern life more universally.
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in a bitter divorce battle. Because of their obsession with spiting each other, the new people in their lives are left ignored. Zhenya is glued to her phone during a dinner date, and Boris’s new partner, pregnant with his child, fears she may be the next in a long line of women he picks up and then dumps. Zhenya and Boris’ 12-year-old son, Alyosha, is also left alone and forgotten about. However, everything changes when he disappears. It’s at that moment that the poised, but fiery, relationship drama of the opening is blended with a procedural investigation mode for the second half.
Zvyagintsev draws real beauty from the Russian scenery. The natural locations are unforgiving and wild, but always striking. After exploring a local forest in the opening moments, Zvyagintsev’s camera settles on Alyosha’s school. A few unsettling beats later, children rush out of the doors, crushing the silence. The camera waits and waits, encouraging the audience to identify the focal character in the crowd. Alyosha emerges from nowhere and the camera takes off with him, his vibrant red coat hiding its (and his) blue lining. Zvyagintsev returns to these colours often — and when framed against crisp white snow, they create a distorted vision of Russia’s tricolor flag.
The director has an impressive sense of scale, both visually and emotionally. Zvyagintsev can find the intimate and the epic in landscapes, which is a fitting visual metaphor for Russia itself, as he finds small stories in the largest nation on Earth. Likewise, even when Boris is alone in his car, the radio is always on, which blows out the walls of the frame and brings grand stories of political corruption from across the world.
Dilapidated architecture is a recurring feature of the film’s landscapes as if reflective of Russia’s crumbling heart. Old Soviet structures represent a politically troubled past yet to be fully eroded. Zvyagintsev contrasts those locations with the area surrounding Zhenya and Boris’ apartment. During a house viewing, they’re quick to state how many new builds there are and how much work is going on in their part of town. This comes across as the local authorities’ attempt to cover up and distract from old scars.
So much of the richness of the images comes from the use of the darkest of blacks. Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman finds soul-sapping darkness in the frame, which makes the rest of the palette feel dynamic despite the sombre tones: particularly the snowfall, which he captures exquisitely against the rich canvas.
The performances are strong across the board, from the parents to the volunteers and police taking part in the investigation. Spivak is particularly powerful and dominates her scenes. But side characters are also given moments of their own. As the leader of the search party calls out the boy’s name, Evgueni and Sacha Galperine’s sparingly used score wails along with her: a heartbreaking cry for help.
Loveless is both a howl and a whimper for the older generations to protect the youth from dark cultural pasts that still bubble under the surface and threaten to erupt at any given moment. Much like Leviathan, the film is oppressively bleak. The cinematography is dark, the drama darker and the tone and emotions yet darker still, but Zvyagintsev has crafted one of the most powerful films at this year’s festival.
Benedict Seal (@benedictseal) is a UK-based film journalist for the likes of Bloody Disgusting, VODzilla.co and New On Netflix.