It isn’t often that a review should explain what a film is not about, but Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a spellbinding examination of absence. Absence of connection, of love, and of independence, each represented by its literal incarnation: the absence of a neglected child.
This child belongs to a vile couple going through divorce. We are able to watch and understand their point of view (a shift in perspective during the first act gives a tangibility to the disappearance of their son), but never to the brink of empathy. Miserable and lonely, they have the emotional underpinning of a Roy Andersson character. In fact, every person in Loveless is a pessimist, figures stuffed inside their homes. The windows that they are framed against (literally against) is a way of maintaining the silence. Its themes may not be as enamoured with politics as Zvyagintsev’s last, Leviathan, but this remains an astute indictment of the Russian government.
Loveless begins with its setting. This is Russia, a stark, empty abyss. Where are all the people? Kids pool out from inside a school building, and the camera follows the child, Alexey, until it doesn’t. The imagery here is telling, an invitation of the film’s themes before they’re revealed. The emptiness of the wintery wasteland is only filled up during the latter half of the film, where citizens choose to forgo authorities and muster up a search party of their own. Interpreting it this way, Loveless is slyly optimistic, staging a battle between an alienating country and its discontented populus. In many other ways, however, Loveless is not.
Take the mother, for instance, who’s both neglectful of her child and expectant of his good behaviour. It is made clear that she doesn’t want anything to do with Alexey, and her inability to notice his disappearance until two days later is proof enough. She’s Mother Russia represented as a figure who has given up on who or what she’s supposed to love, and this characterisation is (sledge)hammered home in one of Loveless’ closing scenes. The film isn’t interested in delivering its message discreetly – why should it be? Zvyagintsev wants his intentions to be heard loud and clear. Televisions blare out war and chaos, a blah blah of negativity that wears off on the characters. It’s over the top, even comically so, but that’s the point. Loveless is a poetically written letter of desperation that urges its citizens to do something, anything, about their country’s political climate.
Once the focus on thematic layering makes way for an investigative drama, Loveless’ narrative becomes more procedural and just as intense. This film can pull off this argument in tones simply due to the fact that it is in itself an argument. The first half stakes the claim that everything is hopeless in Russia, and that it’s citizens are unable to do anything about it. Its second half contradicts this, depicting people banding together in search. It is the results of the search that dictate which side of the dispute this film lies, leaving the viewer as empty as everything this film is not about.