For all its unquestionable qualities and cinematic power, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Leviathan may forever carry the stain of having turned its director into the official chronicler of contemporary Russia – the man we now expect to illuminate, through dramatic obliqueness, the human condition in Vladimir Putin’s country. How good he is at the job, how skillfully he seems to navigate the push-and-pull political dynamic governing the local industry, and how badly we crave that impossible key insight into the most complex of cultures only appears to reinforce our collective decision.
And yet, in light of the unveiling of Loveless in the 2017 Cannes competition, it’s worth asking what we are losing by doing that to the director of The Return. Has he internalized that commitment to such a degree that it is now smudging the lines of his sharp outlook?
Going back to a Moscow setting, whose class disparity Zvyagintsev deployed to such great effect in 2011’s Elena, Loveless begins as Zhenya and Boris’ marriage is dissolving, with their apartment being sold and a less than amicable divorce almost completed. The question is now who will have custody of Alyosha, ‘twelve years and zero manners’, and the answer is so horrific (overflowing with bitterness, neither parent really wants him – or has ever wanted him, for that matter) to force the neglected kid into a desperate escape, and the two adults into a prolonged search that gets bleaker by the day.
It’s rare to encounter a film as subtext-repellent as Loveless. Most jarringly, a few empty-satire attempts at depicting a selfie-obsessed society are luckily lame enough to be brushed aside quickly, while repeated allusions to the developing crisis in Ukraine (and an off-hand mention of ‘little green men’) at least dovetail nicely with the story’s thunderous momentum – a world facing impending doom with matter-of-fact nastiness. But the final shot takes all that and makes perplexingly explicit a parallel of radical, on-the-nose banality.
Unfortunate as it may be, this is however not enough to derail a film of such raw intensity. Simmering under the gelid, calculated perfection of Mikhail Krichman’s cinematography is a refreshingly visceral portrait of unabashed cruelty, reaching above even Leviathan’s peaks. The scene marking the tipping point for young Alyosha is particularly telling – a door closes after a heated argument, only to turn the audience’s relief into a sudden gasp when the son is revealed standing behind the door in a muted, painful scream. A more haunting image will be hard to come by for the rest of the year.
As we’ve come to expect from Zvyagintsev, there are variations in tone preventing this from becoming a mere exercise in blunt trauma, too. As the search for the missing child expands and enlists more people, the film shifts into a peculiar blend of procedural precision and metaphysical imagery (the two nicely converging in a slow pan following a migration of orange jackets from urban buildings and into the woods).
Notably Maryana Spivak, as Zhenya, tiptoes around this fine line and ends up inhabiting a surprisingly rich character. These people are capable of loving, as demonstrated by the relationships with their respective new partners, but even love seems to stem from pain and a heartbreaking lack of self-awareness. Stuck between the pernicious idea of marriage as corporate policy and trans-generational reserves of rancor (when you reckon the parents’ relationship has reached peak toxicity, watch Zhenya’s mother enter the picture and marvel), they are both repulsive and intriguing – always a good dramatic combination.
Key to this is the fact that Alyosha is never granted a point of view, literally running away from his own story. Such is Loveless’ boldness that it erases the character with extreme prejudice, aligning itself with the parents’ despicable behavior and ending up all the more impressive for it. His absence is real because the film makes it so, and their anger is real because the film stays with it to the bitter end.