Alexey Zvyagintsev’s stark tale of a divorcing couple is a missing- child procedural that meditates on the corruption of Russia.
“Loveless,” the title of the compelling and forbidding new movie by the Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan,” “Elena”), seems, for a while, to refer to the state of the relationship between the film’s two main characters, a Moscow couple who are on the verge of divorcing. Boris (Alexei Rozin), bearded and officious, a kind of mildly saddened Teddy bear, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), beautiful and knife-edged, with a buried despair of her own, still live together in the same apartment. But they’re trying to sell it off as quickly as possible, because they can barely come up with three words of civility between them.
Their marriage, or what’s left of it, has reached the toxic point of no return. No one understands this better than Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), their pale and passive 12-year-old son, who doesn’t do much besides stare at his computer between crying fits. When Alyosha disappears without a trace, his emotionally estranged parents have to come together to search for him. But no, “Loveless” isn’t a story about how the search for Alyosha brings Boris and Zhenya closer together, or makes them take stock and stop hating each other. What the movie is about, in a way that’s both potent and oblique, is something larger than the charred ashes of one dead marriage.
There have always been oppressive societies that clamp down on filmmaking, but allow just enough wiggle room of expression for a shrewd — and poetic — artist to say what’s on his mind. That was true in the Communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, or in the Iran of the last 30 years. It’s true, as well, of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As a filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev can’t come right out and declare, in bright sharp colors, the full corruption of his society, but he can make a movie like “Leviathan,” which took the spiritual temperature of a middle-class Russia lost in booze and betrayal, and he can make one like “Loveless,” which takes an ominous, reverberating look not at the politics of Russia but at the crisis of empathy at the culture’s core.
Boris and Zhenya have both moved on to other relationships, which are far more affectionate than the one they’re in, so that seems to be a sign of hope; after divorce comes a new beginning. Boris is with the perky, very pregnant Masha (played by Marina Vasilyeva, who suggests an Eastern European Michelle Williams), and Zhenya, between visits to the salon and a consuming relationship with her smartphone, has found the man who answers her dreams, or at least her needs: the wealthy, handsome, doting, middle-aged Anton (Andris Keishs). Love, it seems, is possible. But what kind of love?
Zvyagintsev colors in a whole society’s romantic neurosis, and he does it with the details along the sidelines. Boris has to keep his divorce hidden at his corporate sales office, because the boss is a fundamentalist Christian. (If Boris isn’t married with children, he’ll be out of a job.) Zhenya’s lover, on the other hand, has given her entré to the one-percent echelon of the new gilded Russia. The film introduces us to it in a telling moment at an outrageously ritzy restaurant where the camera lingers on a woman flirtatiously giving out her phone number…before sitting back down to dinner across from the man she’s come with. That moment speaks volumes — about a clawing-to-the-top ethos of desperate avarice that scarcely leaves room for “romance.”
So what does all this have to do with a missing child? Everything, it turns out. “Loveless” has been made in a forceful and deliberate socialist-realist Hitchcockian style that recalls the most celebrated films of the Romanian new wave (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”; “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”). The disappearance of Alyosha hangs over the movie and haunts it, and on some level it’s a missing-child procedural. Yet what’s meaningful is the way that he disappeared: He was left unsupervised, and his mother, coming home at night, assumed that he was in his room and didn’t bother to check in on him. A minor mistake…and an epic instance of neglect.
The Moscow police, who lean toward thinking that he has run away (because if so, the statistics suggest he’ll likely return, and they won’t have to add to their caseload), can’t do a lot, and a local citizens’ group is more proactive. They scour the area in their orange jackets and fatigues, leaving no stone unturned. As all of this goes on, the title of “Loveless” begins to expand. A society rooted in corruption becomes a petri dish for a loveless marriage that spawns a family in which a child isn’t loved — that is, looked after — in the right way. And the result, seemingly out of nowhere (but not really), is tragic.
The dramatic aesthetic of a movie like “Loveless” — rock-solid yet leisurely in its observance, grounded yet metaphorical — makes it a quietly commanding film, but it’s not clear, at least in the United States, that there’s much of an art-house audience left for a movie like this one. It culminates (in a resonant final shot), but it’s doesn’t always powerfully deliver. It’s a meditation as much as it is a relationship drama. That said, almost anyone who sees it is sure to recognize the virus it diagnoses, which is hardly limited to Russia. The forces that conspire in the fraying of love are now everywhere.