MIFF review: Loveless

Piercing the taboo of unloving parents, Andrey Zvagyintsev delivers another harrowing opus of buried meaning. Astounding.

On the surface, Russian auteur Andrey Zvagyintsev’ Loveless (Nelyubov) is much smaller in scope than his multi-layered 2014 opus Leviathan, though it shares much of the same DNA, including the crystalline visual austerity and precisely cutting social commentary.

Unsettling from the outset, thanks to Sacha and Evgueni Galperine’s piercing then thunderous piano score, the haunting focus on crumbling places and empty spaces is also familiar as we follow 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) home from his architecturally brutal school, as symbolic of his care as it is of the harshness of this town.

A seemingly solitary child, there’s an aching delicacy to his solo play by an icy river, making do with a fallen strip of red and white security tape that he then hurls up so it hangs on a tree. The sense we are witnessing a chilling prophetic  hangs heavy in the biting winter’s air.

The loaded title unfurls itself as he arrives home, with Alyosha’s young mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) all-but oblivious to his presence, then irked by any distraction he creates. She show far more interest in her phone and a glass of red wine. There’s even less love to share between Zhenya and her soon-to-be divorced husband Boris (Alexey Rozin). The latter is more concerned with selling their apartment and keeping up appearances at his highly conservative-run office job, hoping to pass of his heavily pregnant and childishly needy lover Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) as his new family.

Much as Leviathan’s final scene stunned with its boldly visual statement on the convenient marriage between state and church in Russia, here a devastating moment caught in a bathroom, close to Munch’s nightmarish vision, reveals Alyosha’s agony, sparking an emotional dilemma. Exposed to the unguarded and uncaring battle raging between his atrociously self-centred parents next door, each determined to foist his care upon the other while they slink away unburdened to their new partners, it’s unsurprising that he flees home.

What is more surprising is how this disappearance affects both Zhenya and Boris, and their subsequent emotionally complex responses. Another filmmaker may have been tempted to provoke maternal anguish in a much more straightforward fashion, but not Zvagyintsev.

He presents us with a fascinating dual narrative as the excellent Spivak conveys so much confusion, with Zhenya confronting her own coldly cruel mother while at the same as time leaning dependently on the coolly ambivalent support of her older, more financially secure lover Anton (Andris Keishs). Boris actively engages with the search, but how much is his heart in the finding?

Their neglect is speared by every barbed question posed by the investigator coordinating the investigation. All the while the broken edifices crumbling on the decaying edges of this already fraying community elicit increasing dread as snow threatens death with its bony fingers. Mikhail Krichman’s camera relishes these barren panoramas and long before the resolution, it’s clear that Zvagyintsev has once again dragged his audience deep into the gnarled knots of the homeland that would rather snub him than recognise his critical genius.

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Book tickets to see Loveless at MIFF here.