Andrey Zvyagnintsev’s latest film is both more focused and more expansive than the grand novelistic sweep of Leviathan, using a family in crisis as a way of commenting upon a broader Russian malaise, but also performing a kind of meta-commentary upon the social and political conditions that have required him to use a family as a first point of reference as well. Taking place in 2012, in the buildup to the apocalyptic horizon predicted by the Mayan calendar, and amidst a resurgence of “apocalyptic anxiety,” the film subsumes that hysteria into a glacial family drama, revolving around Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), her husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and their son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). As the film opens Zhenya and Boris are in the final stages of what appears to have been a long and painful separation process, and have in fact already embarked upon their separate lives, despite still living in a notional family arrangement with their son in a dated Soviet apartment complex. Very early on, it becomes clear that neither Zhenya nor Boris particularly want or care about Alyosha, as much as they invoke parenthood as a way of hurling insults at each other, and Alyosha knows it too, not only from their demeanor and manner towards him, but from overhearing a traumatic late night conversation in which it becomes clear to him beyond any doubt that their lives would have been better if he had never been born, and they had never married.
For the first part of the film, Zvyagintsev simply outlines the routines of this fractured family situation, following Alyosha as he goes to school, Zhenya as she spends time with her new lover, and Boris as he spends his time with his new lover – now pregnant – and tries to figure out the best way to broach the question of his impending divorce at work. So absent is Alyosha from his parent’s calculations that you barely noticed that his is absent from most of this first act of the film as well, just as it takes Zhenya and Boris two days to realise their neither of them have seen him, so far have their lives taken them from each other and from their apartment. Naturally, they call the police, only to be informed that runaways are so common in this particular part of Moscow that no action will be taken unless Alexey hasn’t returned in seven to ten days. What they can do, however, is call upon a volunteer search and rescue group to help them locate their son, a recommendation that they quickly follow up on. Headed by a unnamed leader, played by Aleksey Fateev, this task force gradually expands as the investigation into Alyosha’s disappearance proceeds, sending Zhenya and Boris down a multitude of different avenues while taking sole responsibility for some parts of the operation as well, introducing a more energised procedural atmosphere into the film.
All of that plays out against a very specific spatial schema, set in the Yuzhnoye Tushino District in northern Moscow, the site of several major waves of Soviet housing in the mid-20th century, many of which are in the process of being demolished en masse to make way for a more contemporary community of apartment complexes. For the most part, Loveless moves between these two types of housing quite seamlessly, always making it clear which is which from the interior fixtures, but also flooding them with the same cold light and organising them around a series of shared vantage points and vistas on a swathe of woodland and industrial land outside that corresponds roughly to the Skhodneskiy parkland. For the first part of the film, these occasional glimpses of this shared landscape is all that we really sense of an “outside,” with the action largely playing in close, confined and cramped quarters, whether residential, commercial or professional. As critics have somewhat tritely observed, this offers a vision of how horrible and despairing Russia is, but this horror isn’t merely a free-floating or emotional phenomenon, but is presented as a consequence of capitalism, and of the incursion of a more European style of political and social organisation.
That’s especially clear in the depictions of Boris’ workplace, which plays as an unregulated and unfettered convergence of corporate and neoconservative values to an extent not even envisaged in the United States. Headed by a Christian fundamentalist, all employees are expected to be baptized, to have a family, and to refrain from anything resembling separation and divorce, while any sense of an alternative future feels just as foreclosed outside the workplace, where social media seems even more omniscient and oppressive than in the rest of the Western world. Even the depictions of consumer goods are strangely empty, with the film remaining unappeased by any of the benefits of market choice, resulting in an odd and bleak environment that seems to have inherited the worst of communism and the worst of capitalism in one fell swoop. Against that backdrop, narratives of collective politics seem untenable, but even the bourgeois family drama that Zvyagintsev grafts onto it is strangely unconvincing as well, at least in the opening part of film, before Aloysha’s disappearance is discovered. Here, we’re subjected to one turgid tableau after another, as the film almost seems to deliberately mine the blandest of European art cinema clichés to produce an interiority that quickly turns into insularity, and then solipsism, centred on characters who find themselves underdrawn within their own lives, lacking the vocabulary to even articulate what it is that could provide them with some form of reprieve.
The result is a deliberate and old-fashioned realism, as if the experiments of Soviet and Russian cinema had been utterly exhausted, forcing Zvyagintsev to fall back upon an older, novelistic form of expression that predates and remains oblivious to cinema’s possibilities as a medium. While Soviet and Russian cinema never really had a “realist” phase in the Western sense of the word, Loveless acts as if it did, and as if it is now drawing upon this tradition as the best way to capture the emergence of a new Russian orthodoxy, or the radical identification with late capitalist orthodoxy that Russia needs to enact in order to surmount the residual traces of its own more radical past. So emphatic is this gesture that it often feels as if Zvyagintsev is cautious about anything resembling an aesthetic per se, with much of the film evincing a total lack of visual curiosity, or at least deflecting it, tentatively, into the dispersed and fleeting vista that we glimpse from the windows that occasionally break the monotony of this lugubrious interior spaces. These flashes of woods, snow and sublime technological infrastructure offer an aesthetic scale and scope the film can never quite identify with or inhabit, at least in its early stages, and work to evoke some deep political trauma that has been subsumed into the drabness and dourness of the film, as well as some great violence that has been done to the cityscape by the very necessity of using this most staid of family tropes – a lost child – as a way of allegorising its oppressive despair.
On its own terms, that might be a bit overwhelming to be properly enjoyably as a cinematic experience, and I have to admit that I didn’t especially enjoy this first part of the film. Things do become more interesting, however, when the search for Aloysha begins, as Zvygantisev takes the narrative in two quite fascinating directions. First, he completely departs from what might be expected to be the conventional trajectory of this particular trope, in which the family unit is restored, whether by way of this particular family or as an ideological horizon, in the process of searching for the lost child. Here, however, Aloysha’s absence just makes his parents realise how much they hate each other and how much they wish they had never formed a family in the first place, leading to a traumatic scene in which they finally reach the point at which they can no longer bear to even be in the same space. From that moment onwards, which occurs on the way back from Zhenya’s mother’s house, they participate in the investigation more or less individually, only coming together when it’s absolutely necessary, and going their separate ways once more once the search is called off. While Boris forms a new family, it’s clear from the way that he unceremoniously dumps his new son in his basinet in the penultimate scene that the process of searching for Aloysha hasn’t even restored the family unit as an ideological horizon, and that he feels just as trapped and frustrated by this new arrangement as he did during his marriage with Zhenya.
If the family unit is never restored, however, the process of searching for Andrey does momentarily embed both Boris and Zhenya back into a broader and more collective sense of social organisation, thanks to the efficiency and economy of the volunteer squad, and the enthusiasm and pragmatism that the leader brings to his role and position. From the moment this squad appears in the film, it introduces a new energy and intensity, as the leader cuts through Boris and Zhenya’s endless bickering, but also through the bureaucracy that prevented the police from helping them in the first place. In fact, these two things – domestic bickering and bureaucratic blandness – are presented as two sides of the same coin once the squad come along, whose presence and prescience is so immediate that they almost feel like a fantasy concoted by Boris and Zhenya, even or especially at their most pragmatic and results-oriented. As the search party proceeds, it gathers more and more people into its ambit, until the film itself feels mobilised by its collective effort, and almost leaves Boris and Zhenya behind as its point of focus, evoking the wider world that they both seem to be yearning for in their endless efforts to escape their apartment, but also displacing the privileged bourgeois individualism of their stories in the process of doing so.
It’s not just the narrative but the aesthetic of the film that is galvanised by the collective presence of this volunteer squad, whose activities necessarily take them deep into the heart of the woodland that we’ve only glimpsed from the windows of one dim apartment after another, as if these collective and aggregated vistas could only properly be inhabited by way of a collective and aggregated effort. As the scale and cinematicity of the landscape expands around the steadily advancing line of the search party, a new kind of landscape comes into focus – for the first time, really, an aesthetic comes into focus – as Zvyagintsev’s shots and vistas expand around this unbroken and unified line. For a moment, the film’s coordinates grow almost majestic in scope and scale, converging on the sublime satellite at the heart of the woodland as if in search of some inchoate and ineffable communion with a broader collective spirit that might allow this aesthetic expansiveness to continue beyond this particular stretch of woodland that up until this point has served as its mere synecdoche. Sure enough, that approach carries over into the next part of the film as well, as the squad’s scouting of local apartment blocks and subway complexes takes on the same sense of grand purpose, and the same gorgeously etched sense of space, as these scenes in the woodland.
During all these scenes, Zvyagintsev’s wide shots don’t feel attuned to a single character or an omniscient spectator but to a collective audience and collective effort, inhabiting a landscape that might have been visible from every window in the film, but nevertheless couldn’t be “seen” in its entirety from any one of them, perhaps explaining the camera’s tendency to zoom into the film’s many windows but never quite align or identify its frames with their own. In its almost mythic coordinates, this central woodland space becomes both more local and more abstract as the film proceeds, as Zvygantisev performs a kind of materialistic reading of place by insisting on its particulars even as he frames it as a concatenation and summary of some of the most enduring images and tableaux of Russian and Soviet cinema of the twentieth century. A distant echo or collective substrate to a cityscape now almost entirely alienated from it, the presence of this squad is fleeting in the film, but so powerful that it almost reconfigures the entire film in its own image. Almost, since it’s only a matter of time before Boris and Zhenya have to concede that they are not going to find Aloysha, and that it is time for them to both make a start upon their new lives.
That leaves Loveless in an odd, suspended state at the end, in which the figure of the lost child – never resolved – doesn’t restore the family unit, but doesn’t allows for a full flourishing of collective politics either. The point must be, then, that this very figure, and this very narrative structure, is what is trapping the characters and their lives, with the squad often feeling like envoys from another film, or another narrative paradigm, as much as a more pragmatic alternative to the conventional police force. As the banal “commentary” of news updates returns to the mise-en-scene, and the sense of working class exploitation is subsumed into a more staid and capitalist sense of “topicality,” Zvyaginisev ends with Zhenya going outside and running on the treadmill with an official Russian Olympic jersey. It’s a gesture as trite and obvious as the fairly misogynistic depiction of Zhenya throughout the film, but the result is more of an ineradicable and insurmountable horizon to representation than any kind of coherent or cohesive comment upon the state of Russia, or its abject distance from the rest of the world. For all that critics might have expressed sympathetic horror at this version of Russia, then, it’s the very presence of the West as a spectre to be addressed that this final scene acknowledges as its horizon and limit, in what may be the most dextrously self-defeating release of Zvyagintsev’s career, leaving open the fascinating prospect of where his anti-aesthetic can possibly go from here.