Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless comes highly recommended, having been awarded the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Festival, but it only elicited lukewarm applause in Melbourne. Perhaps Australians are less welcoming to the wintry bleakness of the film’s settings, not to mention the searing, hateful exchanges between Boris and Zhenya as they approach divorce and argue about which of them is best suited to look after their twelve year son, Alyosha. Boris’s job is at stake if his employer finds out about the divorce; Zhenya hopes he will be fired as she indulges in her Brazilian wax treatment. Aloysha bursts into silent tears as he overhears his parents’ vituperations and he decides to run away. All this domestic drama takes place in a social context of lives led in quiet desperation (thank you, Thoreau) of I-phone Dreaming, selfies, bland indifference to others and public drunkenness. The police are unhelpful, too busy with murders and robberies and worried about paperwork; and social workers are a force to be feared and avoided if possible. Boris’s new love is pregnant and fearful of abandonment, whereas Zhenya gives herself to body worship and unbridled lust, kidding herself that she has finally found true love, after acknowledging her failure to choose wisely between abortion and marriage. Meanwhile, a child is missing.
The search for Aloysha takes up more than half the movie and creates the tension one would expect in a thriller, but without the conventional dénouement. We walk through icy forests, abandoned buildings, hospital corridors and witness a terrible scene where Boris and Zhenya scream and scratch at each other inside a filthy morgue… There is no respite, no redeeming feature, unless it is the remarkably well-equipped team of volunteers who scour the area in search of Aloysha. Meanwhile, the television shows us the carnage in eastern Ukraine, voice-overed with the bland reassurances of the authorities. The only enlivening scene involves a splendid diatribe from Zhenya’s paranoid mother (‘Stalin in a skirt’) who rails against everything and begs God for help. The closing scenes, a few years on, show that nothing is likely to change for anyone.