LFF 2017 Loveless (Nelyubov)

Directed by Andrei Zvyagintsev

Possibly the best film I saw at LFF this year. In Loveless, Zvyagintsev leaves the epic, half-wild landscapes of 2014’s Leviathan for the small-scale but equally devastated and devastating domestic urban edge which he portrayed so effectively in his 2011 masterpiece Elena. It opens with a series of monochrome views of a snow-covered riverside, eventually settling on a fairly bleak (I apologise for the number of times this word will appear here) symmetrical building whose doors soon open to reveal it is a school at home-time. I for one felt a frisson of apprehension at the subliminal memory of the mysterious unknowable kids emerging at the end of Caché. But we see a pair peel off to wander along the edge of the river, apparently two normal lads, and perhaps their world will be OK after all. They separate and we follow one as he saunters along, pausing to twirl a length of old police tape around branches overhanging the river, then heads home. Where all is definitely not OK.

Alyosha (Matvey Novikov)’s parents are in the final stages of a very acrimonious divorce. His father Boris (Alexei Rozin) tries clumsily and unsuccessfully to be a good parent, his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) frankly shows her utter detestation of him, as an ever-present symbol of their failed relationship. Both are preoccupied by new loves, he with an already pregnant younger woman, she with a kind and prosperous businessman who already has a daughter living away – the only pleasant and successful parent-child relationship we are to see. Alyosha overhears a bitter row that night between the two about what to do with him, clearly an unwanted spare part to be left behind as they go to their separate new lives.

Next morning he is gone. The process of trying to find him reveals the extent to which a missing child is a common problem in the country. And as the police declare themselves unable to help, a specially dedicated band of volunteers efficiently takes up the challenge of searching. The powerful and mournful call for silence to listen for signs of life rings out through bleak woodland and derelict spaces, long-gone signs of human activity now more attractive, seemingly, to children than the chill spaces of their own homes. To no avail.

As in Elena, glass plays a potent role: mirrors to echo the narcissistic preoccupations of the adults, window panes, often splashed with sleet like tears, less protecting from the elements than defining the limitations and barriers between people. The huge empty window spaces of the old factories and social centres have no glass, open to the elements, a wild and cold world.

Mothers come off worst in Zvyagintsev’s view of the human condition, and we might find a little sympathy for the unloving and self-centred Maryana when the searchers pay a visit to her unspeakable mother out in the pitch black country – she’s as menacing as a witch in a fairy tale. No mothering skills have been passed on there, and you can see why Maryana longs for security and love. Boris’s future new mother-in-law is his nightmare to come, rapacious and controlling. Alyosha remains a huge empty space in the centre of the film, and as we flash forward to the new lives of his parents, we see no joy has been achieved. As Maryana pedals away desperately to nowhere on her exercise bike in her RUSSIA track suit, she’s the one excluded by the heartless glass from the warm and prosperous life inside that she aspired to with her new man. No end to the lovelessness. It’s Zvyagintsev’s bleakest view of life yet.

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