With much of the world’s media fixated upon election meddling and the machinations of a Russia using its political power in complex ways, we’re granted a highly charged look evocative of Cold War visions of a state under complete control. It’s all the more fascinating, then, to see how the artists in that country see themselves, squaring the circles of their own internal paradoxes while fearlessly confronting some of the cancerous behaviour at the heart of their society.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a masterwork of tone and precision, an excoriating examination of life in Russia told with a somberness and poetry that’s intoxicating. Marrying a noir story of a missing child with sophisticated political commentary, the film manages to evoke many emotions simultaneously, crafting a web of poetry and pathos that makes for one of the year’s great films.
The story surrounds wife Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and her husband Boris (Alexie Rozin) who are living through a disintegrating marriage, forced to cohabitate even as their animus rises. Their son (Marvey Novikov) becomes the foil for their anger, the young child sponging their anger and being slowly destroyed in the process.
After the child goes missing the emotional foundation of the film shifts dramatically, and it’s here that Zvyagintsev’s craft really shines as he is able to seemingly effortlessly twist the story into supremely uncomfortable places. Loveless is not a traditional horror film, but it’s as horrific as any you’re likely to see, with performances that range from the wrought to the restrained. Shot in a murky blue palate, the film feels sodden with layers of guilt, corruption and betrayal, all while echoing larger political motifs that dance around the personal drama.
At its height the film feels as novelistic as any Russian classic, but Loveless never devolves into mere manipulation. Each segment of the film feels earned, each emotional beat played with impact but without going over the top. There’s a moment where the child breaks down as haunting as any you’ll see this year, and that’s but one of several segments that will sear themselves into your consciousness.
Loveless is a triumph, a film whose bleakness remains engaging and astonishing. With impeccable craft, a cast that’s perfectly attuned to the storyline and a narrative that dances between mythmaking and savage documentary-like feel, Zvyagintsev firmly establishes himself as a titanic talent whose vision of his country is as shocking and original as any film made this year.