Russia, Russia, Russia! Anyone sick of hearing about Russia might hesitate to see Loveless, the new movie by Leviathan (2015) director Andrey Zvyagintsev. And, like Leviathan, I don't seem to be quite as in love with Loveless as many other critics.
Somewhat ironically, although the critical consensus is barely lower on Loveless, I actually liked Loveless better than Leviathan, which had rather bored me -- but, although Loveless lives up to its title and is about miserable people who lack empathy, it was at least compelling, in its way. It's also very well shot, full of indelible images that find beauty in what otherwise might be drab landscapes and cityscapes.
The premise is simple. Married couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a bitter divorce, both of them distracted by separate lovers as they contend with trying to sell their apartment. Lost in the mix is their twelve-year-old son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov), neglected and willfully ignored, until he overhears his parents bitterly trying to pawn him off on each other, like an unwanted pet. Although he is the very first character seen onscreen, very little is seen of Alexey, because he disappears.
Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Was there an accident? It takes two days for Zhenya or Boris even to be faced with these questions, because they've both gone to their respective new flings' homes. Zhenya returns late and assumes Alexey is home asleep; wakes up late assuming he's gone to school. She only finds out he's missing when the school calls to ask why he's been gone for two days in a row.
It gradually becomes clear that this story is less about Alexey specifically, than it is about Zhenya and Boris and their patterns of unsympathetic and narcissistic behaviors. Soon enough they are traveling to the home of Zhenya's bitch of a mother, and we get a sense of how Zhenya became the detached mother and wife she is. Boris, for his part, is with a new young girlfriend who is herself pregnant, and he is clearly repeating the very same cycle all over again.
Zvyagintsev pointedly peppers the narrative with radio and TV news reports of conflict in the Ukraine, as well as speculation about irrational public expectation of the Mayan "end of the world" in 2012, when most of the story is set. This is clearly a commentary on the state of modern Russian society, although it's never particularly straightforward. Granted, a shot of Zhenya jogging on a treadmill in a tracksuit with RUSSIA written across her chest is a little on the nose.
Still, when it comes to these people who are more concerned with taking selfies than they are with nurturing relationships, this is a story that could just as easily take place anywhere else -- such as, say, the U.S. There is a universality to this story, bleak as it is. People like this exist everywhere, although there may be something to be said for specific cultural trends that discourage empathy.
Loveless is fairly well done, but it isn't exactly a good time. It feels more like commentary than entertainment. Taken just as the story of a miserable couple who basically misplace their young boy, it doesn't have much to recommend. It's often very pretty to look at, and that's the most pleasant thing about it. None of the people here are all that fun to hang out with. If you're looking to have a good time, I'd steer clear of this one -- but if you want something to contemplate on, you could do worse.