In the ebullient atmosphere at Cannes just after kickoff, a phenomenon occurs where oncoming films get hyped up or passed over before even the earliest critics sit down to watch. On the merit of a starring role or provocative byline, excess screening tickets will disappear deep into pockets or otherwise fall on non-celebrity hands like autumn leaves.
There was a myriad of factors which ultimately left Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Nelyubov (Loveless) passed over by the crowd. The simplest deterrent, perhaps, was that the English and French speaking crowds alike couldn’t pronounce most of the words on their tickets. But Zvyagintsev is a name to watch out for to anyone who can remember it. The Russian director, now 53, was premiering his fourth film at Cannes, which had already given him the Jury Prize in Un Certain Regard for Elena in 2011, and Best Screenplay for Leviathan in 2014, where it was running in Official Selection. Leviathan, a meticulous tour de force about rampant corruption in a Russian fishing town, went on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film later that year, a success which kicked off Russia’s unease with their most prominent auteur. Zvyagintsev has since described his homeland as “living in a minefield,” and this year, the Russian Pavilion at Cannes, a hub for its Ministry of Culture, made no mention or promotion of his new work Loveless. The film was Cannes’ version of a Russian scandal, which are all the rage these days. Nevertheless, it premiered on the same day as Todd Haynes’ Wonderstruck and was nearly forgotten in the wake of the American debut.
Ironically, Loveless is a masterful argument for the beauty which exists in the film outside of nationality or language. Its genius lies in the impeccable camerawork of cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who also gave Leviathan it’s meticulous merit. A comparable lack of dialogue in the two films gives us the identifiable style of a Zvyagintsev feature: long, surgical shots which deliver the action of a brutal and lonely world. In this case, that world is a shattering urban family. The first thing to note about Loveless is that it certainly lives up to its name, and this might be more than some audiences wish to endure. The story is centered evenly on Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a young couple in the midst of what can only be described as a ruthless separation. Zhenya has been showing their apartment to potential buyers. Boris is looking for a way to finagle a divorce without tipping off his religiously fundamentalist boss. Each has significant others to spend most of their daylight hours with, but they still live together, for the time being, in the apartment they share with their ten-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). At night, the fragmented couple bickers over who will take custody of Alyosha while he sleeps, or listens, a room away. Neither can imagine him in their new life. Alyosha is the through line for the film, which takes off when he goes missing during school one day. From there, the story emerges as a search-and-rescue thriller, with Boris and Zhenya begrudgingly working together with the Russian police to try and find their lost, though unwanted son. It’s a task neither seems willing or able to accomplish. Where Leviathan earned merit for looking out on the workings of a community, Loveless turns inward, on the fraught relationships of a small network of people. The end result is not as action-packed, nor as politically intriguing – in this town, the bureaucrats are helpful. But that’s not to say the new feature is less revelatory. One of the most stunning things about Loveless is the way the film makes subtle arguments which never are never formally acknowledged by their characters, and indeed exist outside of them. One of the only things Boris and Zhenya have in common is the amount of time spent looking at their smartphones, a directorial move that remains subtle and pure, largely because the audience doesn’t usually get to see over their shoulders. The result is an image of self-obsession, and neglect when Alyosha happens to be in the room.
Zvyagintsev’s exquisitely composed long shots aid in these subtle thematic threads as the camera leads its viewer seamlessly between walls and behind curtains. As the search for Alyosha goes on, more time is spent with each parent’s new lover, where the fault lines of a caustic relationship are already beginning to emerge. It seems neither one is capable of loving properly, and yet they aren’t sociopaths or narcissists – merely a garden variety of lazy or selfish. How different are they from any of us? This is the argument which one repeatedly returns to during the film’s slow burn, aided and enhanced by the actors. Maryana Spivak is an uncompromisingly vicious ex-wife and mother, deftly delivering a nuanced combination of stubborn and vulnerable femininity. Early on, she pushes the relationship into a surprisingly hostile place, and the film seems in danger of depravity; how can you survive two hours watching two characters you hate despise each other? It turns out that Alyosha’s absence becomes a presence in itself, the unseen protagonist which unifies and morally balances this frigid world. And the longer he remains missing, the more indelible his mark becomes.
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