Review: ‘Loveless’

dfn-loveless-300Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev is a director. Even when it appears there’s not much going on within his films, rest assured, there’s a lot going on beneath the surface. The way his camera lingers over a large plate glass window overlooking a snowy field in between condo housing or the frontal shot of a woman’s distant stare as she runs in place on a treadmill lend his films an authority of presence that’s continually striking. They ask of the viewer much more than passive interest.

Following up 2015’s trenchant Leviathan — a film that angrily dissected the bureaucracy of simply fighting for one’s property — Zvyagintsev drops Loveless. Essentially about the loss of a loved one and the incrementally studious search for him, it’s also a film about the real casualties of a, well, loveless marriage. And in the hands of Zvyagintsev, Loveless becomes just as trenchant an observation about both of these events as any we’ve seen before.

Opening on Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and the endless connection between her eyes and her cell phone, she hounds her young son Alyosha (Matvey Novikof) about the presentation of his room before prospective buyers of their condo apartment show up. In between her basic indifference to Alyosha, the only other spark of emotion shown to anyone besides her new lover is the fighting (both verbally and in person) she involves herself in with soon-to-be ex-husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin).

Zhenya and Boris’ base disillusionment with each other is well-worn tread, obviously, as each has already discovered some happiness in new relationships. In Boris’ case, he’s already impregnated his much younger girlfriend Masha (Marina Vasileva), while Zhenya falls for much older Anton (Andris Keiss). Perhaps their happiness won’t be temporary this time. The warmth and domestication exemplified in snippets with these new partners suggest some permanence.

And, for the first 45 minutes or so, Loveless reveals itself to be a caustic exploration about Boris and Zhenya’s attempts to move on and be happy, despite the emotional scars clearly being delivered upon young Alyosha during their turbulent arguments.

But then, suddenly, Loveless shifts into another gear and becomes something more sinister, more haunting. The shades of divorce, newfound satisfying sex and the possibility of a new family for Boris rupture into a procedural thriller, complete with search parties, bluntly honest cops and television sets in the background constantly humming about the war in the Ukraine or apocalyptic cult groups. Like I said, there’s always something going on, even when there’s not.

Coming into the critical spotlight after only the last decade or so, with his films scoring high prizes at both the Cannes and Venice film festivals, Zvyagintsev’s catalog of films are icy representations of modern Russia, both in subjugated themes and locale. However, I get the feeling that even if he placed his films in the dead of summer, one could still feel the rotten chill wafting off them.

That chilliness extends to his visual schemes as well. Loveless is framed and timed within an inch of its life. One particularly terrific sequence involves Zhenya and Boris driving to her mother’s “compound” together in hopes of finding clues in their search. Devolving into yet another argument, Zhenya’s head is frustratingly thrust back and Zvyagintsev cuts to an overhead shot of her hair blowing in the wind, her eyes lit by the streetlights that zip by them outside. That the entire scene is timed to a heavy metal song, thumped up to high volume at just the right moment, reveals a filmmaker in control of every mood, touch and inclination about the seething and trapped emotions of his couple.

Ultimately, Loveless is as interested in solving the disappearance of its character as much as Michelangelo Antonioni is interested in Lea Masseri’s vanishing in L’Avventura (1960) or Asghar Farhadi is interested in surveying the reality in his masterpieces About Elly (2009), or for that matter Jeff Lebowski deciphering the truth in The Big Lebowski (1998). It’s a plot device … a way to cast a reflective plate glass window against the larger theme of the dissolution of, well, take your choice. The fact that Zhenya and Boris barely notice something is wrong or missing after 48 hours speaks volumes about their self absorbed schedules and thoughts. As I asked in an earlier review on this site, what, if anything, can a certain film teach us about society? In the case of Loveless, it teaches us more than we probably want to know. That’s a rare thing these days.

Loveless opens in the Dallas/Fort Worth area on Friday, March 2 at the Angelika Film Center in Plano.