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'Loveless' Paints A Critical Picture of Modern Russia

Sony Pictures

Moscow looks good in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless. The film shows elegant black and white shots of a woodland in winter, with snow on the tree limbs, contrasting with the wintry black of a pond. Indoors, Boris and Zhenya’s apartment sports big rooms, king-size beds, a proper upper middle-class kitchen. Big windows overlook a park. It looks like both the couple and the country are prospering.

Then Zhenya and Boris start to talk. They may cohabit in this ideal space, but they’re mired in end-stage divorce, and they say the kinds of things they can never take back. The depth of their mutual hatred makes you think of the fights in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, except these two aren’t going through a nightly drunken ritual. In Loveless, it’s straight out deep-seated, blame-filled fury, with not a drop of decent feeling left between them. Their 12-year-old son Aleksey retreats to his bedroom where he holds onto himself for dear life and shakes with tears. In a scene or two he’ll run away.

Neither parent notices. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) comes home late from sex with her boyfriend, slides out of her clothes and climbs into bed. Boris (Aleksey Rozin) doesn’t come home at all, and they might never know that their child is missing if the school doesn’t call to ask where he’d been the past three days.    

The title Loveless is an understatement. There may be no love at all in this entire clean-edged, newly-minted Russia, which writer/director Zvyagintsev shows as a place of callous fraud and rich surfaces. Boris’s boss is a hypocritical religious zealot in designer suits. The cops tell Zhenya directly that they can’t afford to conduct a real search for the boy, and they brush off the business by assuring her that boys like Aleksey almost always come back after a couple of chilly nights on the streets.

Even after Aleksey has vanished, Boris and Zhenya continue fighting. They talk about Aleksey as “it,” and both seem to wish the boy had never been born. Zhenya calls Aleksey’s birth repulsive. Zhenya’s lovely mother is in the film for about 10 minutes and never stops her diatribe against her daughter and son-in-law and warns Zhenya not to “drop your spawn on me.”

It’s the picture of Russian society that has the real grab. It’s neat and clean and opulent. Apartments have clean, precise lines. The grocery market is filled with goods and produce. The cars are new. The hospitals look well-run. People dress well and eat well in restaurants – only to then stagger off drunk into the night and it’s not as if people have become worse with their wealth. Zhenya’s mother, a figure from the Soviet period, lives in a ramshackle home, but is no less bilious than anyone else in the film.

I haven’t seen such furious and not subtle social criticism in a Russian movie since the Soviet work of the 1920s praised the revolution for booting out the fat capitalists smoking equally fat cigars while their brutal Cossacks mow down the striking workers.

But Loveless is not all misery and greed. The cops tell Zhenya and Boris to contact a search and rescue organization made up of all volunteers. It’s a group of dedicated men and women who know how to look for a missing kid. They’re organized, expert and selfless. They comb the fields in orderly rows. They search the apartment buildings and scan the security camera videos. They interview the missing boy’s friend to find out where the children hang out together.

The searchers ask for nothing. They don’t criticize the parents who won’t put their venom aside even during the search. The rescuers just go about their work. They give a damn. Boris and Zhenya, though, would rather get on with their new lives and loves.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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