Loveless opens with 10 tranquil shots of a forest in the dead of winter. All is quiet, frozen, empty. The film’s beginning, as we discover later, is really its epilogue.
In one of the sky-scrapers that rise at the edge of the forest, the tragedy of Alexey’s life will unfold.
We cut to a wide shot of an institution framed in perfect symmetry overlooking a rectangular courtyard. It’s deserted, seemingly devoid of life. Except that it’s a school, and life teems within its walls. A full 21-second-hold later, the central doors burst open and children mill out from the depths of the frame, running towards camera. The camera tracks back following two middle-schoolers as they part company, then follows 12-year-old Alexey as he moves into the forest. Except now it’s autumn. Time has shifted. The snowy shots of the film’s opening develop an elegiac significance, a portent of the time to come.
Russian director Andreii Zvyaguintsev’s unwavering hold on the school, a fluttering Russian flag its only movement, radically alters the notion of the ‘establishing’ shot. The point of the shot isn’t to establish a location or simply to “cut to action” with the ringing of a school bell. Such would be the editorial construction of any plot-driven narrative- grist of the mill today- with the over-bearing emphasis we have on ‘story’. Here, the shot forces the viewer to experience the sheer emptiness of the film’s opening movement. It sets up a contrast between empty facades and interior life, an outside/inside divide that we visit again and again, both formalistically and structurally in the film.
When Alexey high-fives and parts with his friend, he has just the hint of a smile on his face, the only fleeting expression of childish pleasure we’ll see. Alexey’s face, as authorities report later, possesses “no distinguishing features.” His mother, when questioned after his disappearance, says Alexey had “no hobbies,” or so she thinks. Such is the apparent simplicity of script and cinematographic detail that accrues and creates real terror in Loveless.
Alexey walks among the trees, comes upon a ribbon half buried in the earth. Ironically, it is reminiscent of police tape that’s used to demarcate crime scenes. He pries it loose and flings it into the air, a rare boyish gesture from his character. It flies and gets stuck in the bough of an overhead tree, and there it flutters, a sentinel. That ribbon will mark Alexey’s existence- yes, here he was once.
Just a day earlier I’d watched Lorca’s 1934 play ‘Yerma’ at the New York Park Armory in a contemporary version, adapted and directed by Simon Stone. Here, the play’s main character goes to every length to bear a child, even if this means the denigration of self, the negation of every accomplishment, self-respect, love, relationship she has known. She is driven insatiably by the biological need (or more aptly, psychological?) to self-propagate. Loveless, by comparison, explores the plight of a child whom no one wants, who never should have been born, who even at the height of his disappearance is lamented for the trouble he causes, which would not have been the case, his mother matter-of-factly states, had she aborted him as she had wanted to.
I could not help but compare these two birth stories on stage and screen.
I was devastated by Loveless. Yerma in my view tried too hard to devastate. Its fine cast notwithstanding (Billy Piper as Yerma, Brendan Cowell as her hapless husband) and the incredible two-way viewable and glass-encased set created by Lizzie Clachan, the production was overwrought by a music too loud and too insistent, intertitles overly explanatory, a stroboscopic effect determined to decimate. I remained aloof and strangely untouched. Watching Loveless the next day I acutely experienced how silence can be deafening, empty moments replete with suffering.
Zvyaguintsev who previously made Leviathan takes the viewer through sequences in ‘real’ time where moment to passing moment, we experience the colossal and callous yet very commonplace neglect of Alexey by his parents, steeped as they are in their solipsistic neurosis.
Alexey’s very existence is a mistake, the result of a teen pregnancy. His father, Boris (played by Aleksey Rozin) has moved on, and a new teen (or near-teen) is heavy with his unborn child. Boris’s main pre-occupation seems to be to shelve his responsibility of Alexey altogether, and convince his estranged wife, Zhenya to pass him off to her mother, and to somehow keep that information from his Christian employers who might otherwise terminate his employment. Alexey’s mother, Zhenya (a brilliant Maryana Spivak) has moved on as well and is newly and happily in lust with a rich, gorgeous boyfriend, touted for looking much younger than his 48 years. She divides her time between her beauty salon job and her new love nest, warm and glowing in the soft saturated lighting created by director of photography, Mikhael Krichman. She swipes away the hours between work and play, her gaze deadlocked on her cellphone, through endless feeds of photographs of smiling faces and happy family moments- empty surfaces that belie the bleakness of lives actually lived. (Appropriately at a restaurant where Zhenya dines with her new beau, a giggling gaggle of young women cry out their credo while posing for a photograph, “Here’s to Love and Selfies!”)
Love in Loveless is posture, what’s underneath, is fear, loathing and contempt. As Boris drives to work one day, the radio warns that the popular imagination is overwrought by a hysteria that the world is coming to an end. The universe of Loveless is densely layered in image and sound, and the sheer realism of an unescapable unrelenting quotidien, through which the viewer is given untrammeled space to travel alone.
It’s an industrial landscape of a post-communist Russia of sky scrapers and winter resorts. Aspiration is key: pregnant couples look to buy new and bigger housing, a beauty industry waxes skin to perfection, good lookers like Zhenya can get ahead in life by finding rich boyfriends, technology mass circulates images of constructed beauty and aspiration. Boris’s job as project manager is represented by an office of uniform cubicles, symmetrically lined workers in elevators, assembly line food, and a conservative Christian ethos. The enforced ideology of nuclear family and morality is a hypocritical shell behind which employees hide shattered marriages with fake wives and children. Everywhere there’s outward striving, inner bleakness.
Hate brings people together in this post-apocalyptic world. Hate made the pregnant Zhenya leave her then hated and hate-ridden mother (an unforgettable harridan played by Nataliya Potapova) in favor of her boyfriend, Boris, whom she repeatedly insists, she never loved. Fear brought Alexey into a loveless universe. Zhenya admits she wanted an abortion but was too afraid to have one. It’s spousal hate that drives Boris and Zhenya into the arms of lovers, and temporary sensual bliss. Yet, Zvyaguintsev makes their plight all too understandable. They’re not monsters, we pity them. The same Zhenya who in her interaction with her husband and son displays razor sharp ruthlessness, is tender and vulnerable as a woman in love. She has never felt this way, she says. We see the potential within her to love as well as to hate. The ineffectual Boris, constantly emasculated by his wife’s verbal lashing is not without sympathy either. We feel his frustration, and inwardly applaud him for throwing Zhenya out of his car albeit on a highway at night. We are all capable of horrors. It’s the power of Zvyaguintsev’s filmmaking that we feel many contradictory emotions all at once. Nothing is simple and one-dimensional. Except, the singular tragedy of an innocent child’s life.
Zhenya stands by the window, softened after a night of feverish love-making (in love with herself in love?) Krichman’s beautifully roving camera is now outside looking into that warm and intimate scene, as a secret smile caresses her lips. Meanwhile Zhenya hasn’t been home in two days and doesn’t know her 12 year old has gone missing. We are indeed strange and brutal beings, wrapped in private unfathomable universes.
All is temporary. This eros will lift, the new boyfriend will be claimed by politics and television, ennui will return, and Zhenya will restlessly return to rove through her cell phone’s treasure trove of selfies. Yet another child’s wailing tantrum will turn Boris away from yet another newly minted family.
Despite the film’s bleak and cynical gaze, fineness of spirit and humanity are embodied in the band of volunteers who work outside the purview of the uncaring nation-state, unstinting in their search for missing children. They are driven not by ‘love’ but by duty, a higher calling, independent of self-interest. Their dedication contrasts with the ineffectual self-pitying motivations of the parents who intermittently join the search but are never in control.
Like the work of Michael Haneke (who surely must be an influence?) Zvyagintsev’s art is harrowing because he doesn’t ‘show’ the horror or even suggest it in simple, unambiguous terms- he skillfully lets us imagine the worst for ourselves. And what description can possibly compete with the horrors of our own imagination, fed by a thousand tales of missing children from books and films and private nightmares?
In what seems like unbearably elongated time, we scour the expanse of an underground basement and abandoned factory in search of the missing Alexey. We search the forest and every apartment complex while the dead of winter sets in, treacherous and unrelenting.
Through masterful mise-en-scène, real time and subtle symbolism we funnel through our own individual emotional troughs and crests. At the end of the film, Zhenya moves from indoors to outdoors, she leaves her now not-so-new love in the large, warmly-lit house where he watches television (as news unfolds of Russia’s annexation of Crimea) and moves outside to the veranda where it snows steadily: she gets onto the treadmill and starts running, keeping her body in shape. What do we make of the ‘RUSSIA’ writ large on Zhenya’s t-shirt as she eventually stares directly into the camera’s lens with an unblinking gaze? Is this Russia looking at its loveless self? Taking stock perhaps of institutional neglect, cruelty, indifference, despair?
All that remains of Aleksey’s desires and dreams, of which we know nothing (not even if he had hobbies) is the resilience of a ribbon tied to a tree that flies through many a winter of lovelessness.