The title of Loveless is no misnomer: It might just be the feel-bad movie of the year. A new word should be invented for the particular kind of poetic, politically-charged bleakness acclaimed Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev (Leviathan, The Return) brings to the screen, some Cyrillic-alphabet cousin to the Germans with their weltschmerz and schadenfreude.
Nominally, the story — a Jury Prize winner at Cannes last spring and Oscar nominee for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film —is centered on 12-year-old Alexey (Matvey Novikov), a shy, solitary kid who spends hours reading in his room or wandering alone through a grim winter landscape. But really he’s just the collateral damage in his parents’ mortally wounded marriage, a union grown so toxic that their mere presence in the same room seems to release its own poisonous gas. When they come together, it’s vicious: Late one night, his seething young mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and sulky, bearish father Boris (Aleksey Rozin) stand in the kitchen tossing the question of their only child’s custody back and forth like a rotten potato neither of them wants to be caught holding, or an unwanted dog that can’t be brought back to the pound.
They’ve each already moved on to new lives and new loves; the boy’s guardianship, along with final divorce papers and the sale of the family home, are clearly the only formalities standing between them and a future happiness far away from one another. So it’s especially inconvenient when Zhenya returns from a romantic sleepover with her wealthy older boyfriend to find Alexey missing. He hasn’t been at school for two days, and the neighbors say they haven’t seen him. The police are dismissive; they hardly have time for runaways when their caseloads are already stacked with real crimes.
For a moment at least, Alexey’s disappearance seems to awaken some dormant maternal instinct in Zhenya, who usually gazes at her iPhone screen with far more focus and tenderness than she’s ever deigned to show her son (Spivak, with her sudden furies and sloped Slavic cheekbones, is startling, somehow both glacial and volcanic). Even the impassive Boris, already busy anticipating the birth of another baby with his new companion, is at least temporarily engaged in the search. But is it all too late for Alexey?
Zvyagintsev shoots most of his scenes in long, unbroken takes that feel viscerally lonely even when there are dozens of people in the frame. And the metaphor of monster parenting — along with the ambient stream of grim national news burbling from nearby TVs and radios — seem pointedly aimed at a larger spiritual and societal decay; something both numb and rotten at the core. Unsurprisingly, those views haven’t made the director especially popular with certain government gatekeepers at home, and Loveless is hardly designed to win over a mass audience in the West either. But there’s something profoundly affecting in its ugly truths, a sliver that gets under the skin and stays there.