As much as we bicker with our parents, it’s safe to say that no child ever wants to feel like they’re not wanted. Unfortunately, poor little Alexey is the biggest loser of the parental lottery. His parents are going through a divorce so brutal, it makes you question why they even got married in the first place; they have both found new partners and it’s clear from observing their separate lives that their son doesn’t fit into the equation. One night they argue over who should take custody — neither of them wanting to carry what they consider a burden. A shot tracks the mother, Zhenya, as she leaves the bathroom and slams the living room door to reveal a devastated Alexey hiding behind it — his face projecting horror and overwhelming sadness. It is perhaps the most powerful shot in a film full of them. Any cliched metaphor can be applied — a stab in the heart, a punch in the gut — from there, I understood that this was going to be a rough ride, though I was never expecting it to be easy.
Andrey Zvyagintsev is the modern master of making Russia look depressing as hell. His last film Leviathan was a harsh condemnation of Russian culture and faith — bitter and cold in its presentation and soul-crushing in its storytelling, no character or viewer comes out unscathed. Loveless is a similar experience, with cinematography as chilly as a winter in Moscow — it’s both beautiful and unsettlingly eerie. The story is just as chilling — after hearing his parents yell that they both don’t want him, Alexey runs away from home. Even when they’re worried sick, his parents still ruthlessly criticise him for putting their lives on hold, complaining about how burdensome his disappearance is. Obviously, they should have never become parents.
For all the rough beauty of its storytelling, Loveless falters in its characterisation. The female characters are practically empty vessels, brushed with sweeping generalisations as either overly emotional, a straight-up bitch or a doting housewife. They lack the agency or personality of the male characters (keeping in mind, there are two main male characters, and one of them is missing!) and while it doesn’t dramatically impact the way I feel about the film, I do think the story is far stronger than its characters.
Despite this, I think what makes Loveless so heartbreaking is that it feels real. It hits you with the realisation that life really is this terrible. Maybe I’m just a pessimist but, with everything that’s going on right now, am I really being that harsh? It’s this slice of reality that makes Loveless sadder than even the greatest of tragedies. Zvyagintsev paints a bleak portrait of 21st century Russia — Alexey’s disappearance sends a wave of trauma across his family, but by the end the film posits that you just have to suck it up and move on. Radios and televisions in the background hint at Russia’s incoming political turmoil — what’s a missing child compared to the deaths of thousands in Ukraine? Obviously, I don’t condone this sentiment, but that’s Zvyagintsev for you.