Loveless, the latest work from Russian writer / director Andrey Zvyagintsev, opens with several static shots of a bleak and desolate winter landscape. It’s a fitting introduction to a film that, true to its title, exists in an emotional vacuum where comfort and interpersonal kindness are nowhere to be found. Having not seen any of his previous work, I can’t help but feel Zvyagintsev doesn’t hold much faith in the human race as a whole. Such a worldview can come off as overwrought and unintentionally silly in the wrong filmmaker’s hands (late-period Lars von Trier springs to mind), but luckily Loveless is a mesmerizing journey through marital purgatory thanks to some resplendent cinematography and a mounting atmosphere of dread.
Zhenya and Boris are perhaps the most miserably married couple to serve as a movie’s subject since The War of the Roses. Although a divorce seems to be in the works, it doesn’t stop them from viciously insulting one another at every opportunity. Most of their free time is spent with their respective new lovers (Boris even has a new kid on the way). These early scenes, with their borderline-horror overtones and cruel verbal exchanges, are easily the film’s strongest. Clearly, any love shared in the beginning has long since disintegrated.
The only thing that stands between them and blissful separation is their oft-ignored and introverted son Alyosha. His parents make no effort to hide their disdain towards him, as neither of them seems to have any room for him in their post-divorce plans. Shortly after we’re introduced to Alyosha, however, he vanishes. The parents don’t even notice his disappearance for the first day or two, and once they do, Loveless shifts from a harrowing relationship drama into a fatalistic mystery.
While the first half recalls doomed relationship films in the vein of Blue Valentine or Scenes from a Marriage (with the nihilism cranked up to 11), the second half, particularly with its muted blue color palette, feels akin to the David Fincher of Gone Girl, albeit slowed to an arthouse pace. It’s not a straightforward procedural per se, as the whole affair has a sense of looming tragedy, and Zvyagintsev luxuriates in this icy ambience.
Loveless is never less than wholly engrossing, but part of me was let down by the narrative turn in its second act. I would have been more than happy watching Boris and Zhenya piss all over the ashes of their relationship. The second half suffers slightly in its reliance on metaphor over character. Indeed, the film is peppered with political radio commentary (it’s set in 2012) to mirror the family’s disintegration with that of Russia’s flailing political terrain. It’s an ambitious choice, but one that occasionally feels forced. Further still, their child is never a fully fleshed-out character, and his disappearance is mostly there to serve a thematic function as a symbol of the couple’s last shred of shared connection.
Casual moviegoers may walk out of Loveless feeling deeply unsatisfied with its resolution. It’s a slow-burn domestic drama / quasi-thriller that gives more service to its mood and characters than any sort of narrative payoff. Those willing to surrender themselves to the film’s hopeless aura, on the other hand, will come away from its haunting final shot with much to consider — namely how terrible people are to one another.