One of the greatest living filmmakers’ new film asks the toughest questions

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is as heavy as it gets.

Early in Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless, a couple working through a divorce have a bitter fight. In their modern condo located in the suburbs of Moscow, they scream and argue over the fate of their 12-year-old son, Alexey: neither of them wants to carry him over to their new post-relationship lives. While the apartment is efficiently designed to take make a small space seem open, it has strange twists and turns even if it’s hardly larger than a matchbox. In a sleek apartment with hard edges and a grey tint, Alexey has nowhere to hide as he is faced with every child’s worst nightmare: his parents don’t love him. Zvyagintsev, the master of emotionally corrupted families and bleak landscapes, crafts one of the most harrowing portraits of alienation in modern cinema.

It should go without saying that Loveless will not appeal to all audiences. Shortly after the events of this argument, Alexey disappears. His parents were with their new, respective lovers and could not even say the last time he was seen. Most of the film charts their quest to find their son, trying not to give in too much to the broiling tension between them. With an unforgiving Russian winter looming outside, hope seems lost even before Alexey is officially reported as missing.

Even the film’s title, Loveless, alludes to the heavy presence of an absence. Rather than be about hatred, contempt or selfishness, it is a film about the lack of love. That lack of love leads to divorce, it also leads to a little boy running away. Rather than a sense of emptiness though, the film feels viscous, thick with atmosphere and emotion. Zvyagintsev is unrelenting in how he frames performances as disconnected from their environments. People seem to drift through spaces rather than engage with them. Many of the interiors are decorated with chic but dark modernist principles, the sense of design evocative but impersonal. These apartments often feel like stages more than they do homes, and even in their most private moments, characters seem to be pantomiming emotion rather than experiencing life.

This lends to the film’s central tension. Why are the parents trying to find their son? Do they love him? Or, do they feel obliged to? That line is blurred and contradicted. The film does not offer easy answers as it navigates the bureaucracies and organizational routines centred on finding a missing person. Zvyagintsev crafts existential ennui around actions and movements rather than passive despair. The film has the atmosphere of a late-period Fincher, as a clinical style meets a gripping and horrifying investigational zeal.

Loveless alludes to some deeper set patterns within Russian society. It is most evident in the dealings with the police, who outwardly suggest working with NGOs if they ever want to find their son. Structures of wealth and privilege seem to also play a significant role in how the film deals with cyclical abuse. One specific sequence, one of the film’s most depressing, features the couple driving hours into the countryside to visit Alexey’s grandmother. More than just emphasizing a divide between rural and urban life, this sequence illuminates the parental attitudes omnipresent within the film. While many of the particularities of Zvyagintsev’s commentary go over my head, the film hits universal touchstones that drive the point home.

The film has a rich visual texture, and the sleekness of the modern interiors contrast with the sparse and unwelcoming exterior landscapes. There are absurd moments of discomfort that border on comedy, such as Alexey’s mother’s use of a treadmill on a snowy balcony. These wordless sequences leave the audience asking questions about her inner life, which seems particularly impenetrable. Is she exercising to forget her pain? Or, is she more interested in being the fit, young wife for her new boyfriend? The constant blue glow of smartphones similarly punctures nearly every scene. While some might despair at Zvyagintsev’s dour representation of contemporary life, there is a chilling sense of truth in his portrait of our disengaged living.

Given this and his previous films, Elena, Leviathan and The Return, Zvyagintsev stands out as one of the greatest living filmmakers. Haunting does not begin to channel the creeping insinuations of his craft, as his films examine the discomfort and isolation of modern life. Loveless, which is nominated for the best foreign film at the upcoming Oscars, might be the best film nominated for an Oscar in 2018 and is essential viewing on the big screen. ■

Loveless opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 23. Watch the trailer here: