Issue 58 (2017)

Andrei Zviagintsev: Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2017

lovelessAndrei Zviagintsev continues to exert great cultural influence internationally, even though his audience in Russia has frozen at roughly 348,000 spectators for Loveless, released nationwide on June 1, 2017, a few days after its Cannes triumph. One wonders if they were more or less the same 348,000 that had reportedly watched his Leviathan in 2015. The figure seems to be infinitisemally small for a country with a population of 145 million, more appropriate for a cult film director than for a leading intellectual figure, a “ruler of thoughts” (vlastitel’ dum). Moreover, these viewers—if the online responses are any indication—are deeply divided between admirers, detractors and those who seem to have been delighted and upset by the film in equal measure. At the time of writing (mid-September 2017), its box-office receipts abroad, according to the usually reliable Russian website, have already exceeded the Russian grosses nine times, even though the film is yet to be released in major foreign territories.

lovelessWhy all this number-crunching? Numbers matter, because they mean that the majority of Russians will never see themselves in this unflattering but brutally honest mirror. In fact, the only Russian movie to have recouped its costs so far this year was a vulgar comedy titled Granny of Easy Virtue (Babushka legkogo povedeniia, dir. Marius Balchunas, 2017). The much-maligned Matilda (dir, Aleksei Uchitel’, 2017) may still beat that record and become the year’s box-office champ (if ever released), due to all the uncalled-for publicity from the fringe religious fanatics and a certain parliamentarian with a bee in her bonnet. At the showing of Loveless in Russia, however, I shared the theater with six or seven people, including three young girls who looked like they were out to unwind after their high-school exam. The usher questioned them sternly: “Are you really 18? Because it is a very, very adult film!” And adult it was. But let us get down to brass tacks.

lovelessLate autumn 2012. Two middle-class Musovites, Zhenia (Mar’iana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksei Rozin) are in the middle of an ugly divorce, still sharing the same apartment and exchanging barbed and bitter bits of invective, trying to hurt each other the most. Zhenia is especially successful. Caught in the middle is their eight-year-old son, Alesha (Matvei Novikov) whom neither parent wants. The parents do not even pretend to hide the fact and plan to send him to an orphanage. Driven to despair, Alesha runs away from home into a wintry landscape. Neither Zhenia nor Boris notice his disappearance until the next day. Both have paramours they are much infatuated with, and their son is the least of their concerns. The police have neither time nor resources (nor any particular desire) to look for the missing child and suggest contacting a group of volunteers who specialize in such cases. The volunteers do all they can, combing the surrounding area that sometimes looks like an abandoned post-industrial landscape, to no avail. Finally, the parents are invited to a morgue to look at the body of a brutally murdered boy. Both refuse vehemently to identify the body as their son’s, but the father’s weeping sows the seed of doubt in our minds: are they both in deep denial? Two years later, the winter of 2014–15. Boris is shacked up with his new young wife and saddled with another child he does not want. Zhenia is living with her aging sugar daddy. Dmitrii Kiselev spouts anti-Ukrainian propaganda on TV. Zhenia is running on the threadmill wearing a Western tracksuit with the inscription RUSSIA in big letters lest anyone misses the metaphor. The landscape outside her balcony is just as frosty and uninviting as in the beginning. Time is circular and does not teach anyone anything.

lovelessLike Leviathan, Loveless gives us a Zviaginstev more willing to engage in political issues of the day than he was in his debut, The Return (Vozvrashchenie, 2003), which had more religious and philosophical references, to the point of abstraction. Its town was strangely depopulated, leaving only the protagonists to act out their drama. In contrast, Loveless is anchored firmly in the brave new world of today’s Moscow, with many secondary characters adding nuance and even providing occasional comic relief to the otherwise relentlessly grim story. The funniest scene is the lunch talk between Boris and his colleague on how detrimental the consequences of divorce may be for one’s career prospects, since their boss, “The Beard,” is a Russian Orthodox conservative. The time and place are clearly marked with many telling signs, beginning with the tricolor flag over the school building early in the film and continuing with the Uzbek migrant laborers tearing up the apartment in a renovation bid. Indeed, the critics frowned at the use of overt political symbolism of “Mother Russia” running nowhere. Even so, Zviagintsev does not cross over into the “movie with a message” territory. The bulk of his film deals with the human condition, regardless of place or political regime, and can be defined as Bergmanesque. An incisive Russian viewer (larisssa #61) even suggested on that Zhenia’s character may have been inspired by the monologue of Nurse Alma on Elisabet’s hatred of her son in Persona (1966). The same viewer (larisssa, #71) argued that the film should be subheaded “Cries and Whispers” because of the way its characters talk—sometimes using obscene words and expressions that were squeamishly “beeped” in the Russian version, even though everyone in the audience knew exactly what they said.

lovelessThinking of the film’s reception at home, it is perhaps inevitable that a large segment of the viewers fired off the usual salvos of hate, accusing the director of “anti-Russianness,” of catering to Western money-lenders, and the like. This type of witch-hunting has become so common in today’s Russia that one is almost grateful that the film was released without bomb threats or that its director was not arrested on trumped-up charges like Kirill Serebrennikov. However, there is a problem that arose when the viewers who were prepared to like the film did not have any character to identify with. How can you like a film whose protagonists are so loathsome you wouldn’t want to share an office elevator with them? The boy Alesha is an innocent victim and disappears fairly early in the story. The well-meaning volunteer rescuers are organized and hard-working, but somewhat robotic, all work and no play. The rest are a panopticum of moral monsters. There is a brief respite to describe the root of the heroine’s scorn when she says: “I have never loved anyone. Except my mother when I was very young.” Judging by a glimpse of her mother later in the film, she is indeed a monster. Lovelessness as an infectious disease is the main theme of the film. It is preventable and curable, up to a point. After that, it is up to the person whether he or she survives it. All the adult characters fail miserably. Should we have pity on them? Probably not. One answer may lay in critic Andrei Plakhov’s reaction in Kommersant”: “Zviagintsev and his crew are studying the phenomenon of the Russian zhlobstvo [incorporating both ‘meanness’ and ‘slobbery’]. And the zhloby do not necessarily deserve love and compassion.” (Plakhov 2017). Amen. The burning question remains: where do the innocent victims of their callousness go? And can they ever be saved? If the reader is familiar with the Russian TV talk shows based on family feuds, such as Let Them Talk (formerly hosted by Andrei Malakhov) or Masculine-Feminine (hosted by Aleksandr Gordon), s/he knows that the reality is much harsher than the fiction. This is where the officious Russian TV, ironically, can give you a truer picture of the abyss that is Russia today than where even the most dissenting and disserting arthouse filmmakers will boldly go.

P.S. On September 22, 2017, Russia submitted Loveless as its official entry for Best Foreign Language Film in the Oscar sweepstakes. It may be a purely pragmatic decision (what other film has any chances of winning?) or it may be that not all love is lost. 

Sergey Dobrynin

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Works Cited

Plakhov, Andrei. 2017. “Ot neliubvi ne zarekaisia,” Kommersant 2 June.

Loveless, Russia/Belgium/Germany/France, 2017
Color, 127 minutes
Director: Andrei Zviagintsev
Screenplay: Andrei Zviagintsev, Oleg Nemin
Cinematography: Mikhail Krichman
Music: Evgenii Galperin, Sasha Galperin
Production design: Andrei Ponkratov
Editor: Anna Mass
Cast: Mar’iana Spivak, Aleksei Rozin, Matvei Novikov, Marina Vasil’eva, Andris Keiss, Aleksei Fateev, Sergei Borisov.
Producers: Aleksandr Rodnianskii, Sergei Mel’kumov, Gleb Fetisov.
Production companies: Nonstop Production, Fetisov Illuzion, Why Not Productions, Les Films du Fleuve, Senator Film, Arte France Cinema.

Andrei Zviagintsev: Loveless (Neliubov’, 2017)

reviewed by Sergey Dobrynin© 2017

Updated: 2017 07 Oct 17