Difficult not to love ‘Loveless’, a stunning and equally bleak film
Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Written by: Andrey Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin
Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin and Matvey Novikov
“Loveless” – One of the more common statistics floating “out there” – spoken at happy hours, bake sales and around water coolers - is that half of marriages end in divorce. The collective “they” might be right, because according to Google, the U.S. divorce rate is 41 and 60 percent for first and second marriages, respectively.
Looking at divorce globally, an Oct. 18, 2017 article in The Telegraph, a UK newspaper, states that Maldives has the highest such rate in the world. The United States? We rank fifth.
Well, Russia is second in the said study, and in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (“Leviathan” (2014)) “Loveless”, he explores the turmoil of one particular broken marriage during his anxiety-driven 2-hour 7-minute big screen experience, one that rightfully earned a Best Foreign Language Picture Oscar nomination.
Actually, Boris’s (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya’s (Maryana Spivak) marriage has not officially dissolved on paper. They are not divorced just yet, but their permanent, legal split will come soon.
They hate each other.
They loathe the sight of one another, live in a loveless household and share it with their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). When mired within the same daily living space, the parents’ mutual abhorrence boils into a constant, toxic ecosystem for all three individuals. For Alyosha, he suffers the most emotional damage, as kids often do under the circumstances.
Zvyagintsev paints icy circumstances for this family and the physical surroundings. Filmed in a woodsy suburb of Moscow called the Yuzhnoye Tushino District, the setting is not under a siege of brutal blizzards in the dead of winter, but the air and the associated environment feel frigid.
For instance, as the local children exit their concrete school – which could double as a faceless post office - Alyosha walks on the cold, stony slabs of the courtyard and into a lightly forested trail with leafless trees. The trees won’t blossom for months. They stand tall, but are dormant and brace for future snowstorms and below zero temps.
Boris, in his 40s, works a typical office job and braces for the latest policy that politely nudges him towards corporate conformity. His 9 to 5 does not offer much joy, but at least his daytime hours act as a temporary reprieve from the misery of his marriage. Well, that and his 20-something girlfriend, who he will cohabitate with, once his divorce papers are printed and signed.
Zhenya, in her early 30s, is strikingly beautiful, and if not caught up in years of a dead marriage and the regret of becoming a mother, one could easily see her traveling the world as a model or designer and embracing the fruits of life. In some parallel universe, she probably is.
In this universe, however, Zhenya, Boris and Aloysha are lost. Lost souls, and Zvyagintsev explores the roots that manifested the present-day dysfunction and also the current patterns that allow it to fester. He does so in eye-opening and cringe worthy ways, specifically by revealing how words can hurt and misguided actions are just blindly repeated. Although Boris and Zhenya toil through several arguments, their first one sets the picture’s dark tone. As their screams reach a fever pitch, the film seems to reach out, grab your neck and choke off your air supply.
It might leave you a bit breathless, but rather than only wade through this family’s complicated living situation, the film takes a sudden left turn into a confounding mystery with no easy answers. In fact, finding a needle in a haystack does not even begin to describe the struggle, as the picture’s foundation of doom is now topped with desperation.
Director Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation” (2011), “The Past” (2013), “The Salesman” (2016)) is a master a weaving complex family turmoil, as his players constantly grapple with shifting kinship challenges in very close, indoor spaces. In Zvyagintsev’s picture, he introduces this family in a close, indoor space but – instead - drops a sledgehammer on our heads us and leaves us staggering for the duration. Many times, we stagger in bleak but simultaneously stunning outdoor spaces, with visuals that will linger as long as our new memories of this family’s hopeless journey. Zhenya, Boris and Aloysha certainly have a story, a difficult one, but no, they are not just a gloomy statistic.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.