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Please note: this article contains spoilers.

The spectre of Andrey Tarkovsky looms over contemporary Russian cinema, where you just need one long shot to be compared to Stalker or Solaris. However trite such comparisons may be, it’s hard not to think of his film Ivan’s Childhood in the early scenes of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest bleak drama, Loveless. A young boy makes his way through a desolate woodland, eyes wide not with wonder but with the haunted look of someone whose youth has been robbed by the violence of adults. In Tarkovsky’s third feature war is front and centre, tearing up the landscape with bombs. Zvyagintsev, however, relegates war (this time in Crimea) to a background detail in the film’s final moments. His latest zeroes in on the war between a couple, telling the story of a family falling apart, first as they negotiate a divorce, then as their son goes missing. Zvyagintsev’s form may hark back to the work of his acclaimed predecessor, but his lens is fixed firmly on 21st-century Russia.

If the name Zvyagintsev is unfamiliar to you, he’s the bold, uncompromising director who used state funding to make Leviathan, a ferocious rallying cry against the corruption of state and church in Russia. It even featured a scene of disgruntled locals taking shots at portraits of Russian political figures. Unsurprisingly, it was not beloved by Russia’s current administration. The director is no less acerbic here, using his central loveless family to present a withering look at the nation’s diminishing sense of compassion. The New York Times suggested that the film’s central thesis is that “when the state loses its humanity… how long can its citizens hold on to theirs?”[1]

His approach between the two remains the same, taking a small, personal story to highlight an aspect of the national character. Alexander Rodnyansky, his producer and regular collaborator, recognises this propensity towards microcosmic storytelling, claiming that “Andrey has a gift – he sees the universe in a drop of water.”[2] This is a vision of Russia in permanent winter, with the apocalypse seemingly always around the corner and middle-class ego taking precedence over family and community. 

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Much of this heavy thematic weightlifting is woven into the story through incidental details: the cop who dispassionately informs the mother that they don’t have time to track down missing children; the other children who turn up lost or dead as the grief of some other, unseen family. As the search for the missing child begins to unfold, we get glimpses of Russia in a state of decrepitude. One trail leads the searchers to a derelict, seemingly forgotten building in the middle of the woods. Another takes them to a morgue with brown stains on the walls, as unhygienic as it is uncaring.

Watching it all is Zvyagintsev’s slow-moving camera, keeping a coolly detached distance as it glides through the city. It remains separate from the hunt for the child, creating striking images such as the slow emergence of searchers tramping their way through overgrown grass. There’s a sense of helplessness as you watch a team of volunteers search stairwells from the perspective of an opposite building, the darkness of the night punctuated only by doors opening and still no discoveries of the absent son. Director of Photography Mikhail Krichman finds a stark kind of beauty beneath the greys, whites and browns of modern Russia, but it brings little comfort.

Whether or not you’re clued up on contemporary Russian society or not, does not change the impact of Zvyagintsev’s powerful film. His unflinching camera and commitment to telling personal stories makes the central family grimly compelling to watch regardless of their metaphorical significance. His previous works shows his fascination with fractured families, telling stories that are upsettingly credible in their depiction of the type of cruelty that is peculiar to family units. Elena is an excoriating look at the lengths people will go to fulfil their greed in a tale almost entirely devoid of compassion. Perhaps his finest work, The Return, is agonising in the way it shows a previously absent father struggling to reconnect with his two sons. Neither have especially sunny outlooks, but their insight and impact are undeniable.

In all of his films, Zvyagintsev depicts relationships full of the casual aggressions that can slowly rot at families and Loveless is no different. It takes almost an hour of the film before the son disappears; the rest is dedicated to watching the reasons he leaves. There’s an almost diagnostic eye to the film as we see the symptoms of the parents’ failure: he’s a hypocrite who cares more about his standing with a religious boss; she’s a self-absorbed social media obsessive; neither of them is even remotely self-aware. These are people that we probably recognise – colleagues, family members, perhaps even ourselves.

The director says that the uniting factor behind all of his films is that they are “honest about reality.”[3] It’s what makes them so compelling, even in their measured bleakness. We see something true and honest about humanity reflected back at us in the icy windows and ponds of modern Moscow. Families and countries fall apart and it’s impossible to stop watching as it happens. 

Nathanael Smith 
Freelance copywriter, copy editor and film critic

February 2018




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