Leviathan director Andrey Zvyaginstev’s latest film, Loveless, will lead you into the dark abyss–one that feels empty and wholly unsatisfactory. More often than not, the film acts like a merry-go-round of misery; it traps the lead characters firmly in one place and never really allows them to grow. Perhaps that’s the point, but this exceptionally grim take on unhappiness makes it hard to become fully engaged in Loveless and its characters.
Set in Russia, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a pretty ugly divorce. And by ugly, I mean they’re always yelling at each other, screaming, playing the blame game, and throwing tantrums. Most of the external ire comes from Zhenya, while Boris remains seemingly passive while he tries to sound concerned about certain affairs, such as the selling of their apartment before he leaves to go to his younger and pregnant girlfriend’s house. But he doesn’t leave until after he shames Zhenya for not wanting full custody of their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), and telling her that it’ll look worse for her because she’s the mom. Either way, both of their anger is the boiling, hot rage kind of anger that bristles and never settles or calms. And this anger is utterly devastating to the film.
Boris is more worried about how the divorce will affect his job because he works for a super conservative Christian boss who fires anyone who isn’t married. Zhenya is annoyed that this is what’s important to him rather than anything else. Off with their significant others, Zhenya tells her boyfriend that she never really loved Boris and how she never wanted Alyosha at all. Boris wanted to keep the baby to get his job and they remained in a loveless marriage for twelve years with their resentment towards each other only growing. There’s no love shown for their son, either, who is ignored and forgotten about. That is, until he is reported missing and the former couple has to spend more time together than apart looking for him. But instead of the tragic event drawing them together, it only drives them, and their deep-rooted unhappiness, past the breaking point.
Zhenya and Boris are two people who absolutely embody the meaning of misery. It’s on their faces, in their movements and attitudes, and the deadness in their eyes. Their unhappiness seeps into every part of their lives, attaching itself like a leech unwilling to be removed no matter what. Interestingly, the film examines the daily reasons behind Zhenya and Boris’ troubled psyches and absolutely broken and unhappy relationship while set to the backdrop of war trauma from Russia’s neighboring country, Ukraine, circa 2012. On TV, images and news commentators crop up to let us know that the situation is bad and war has broken out. Families are devastated, attacks are happening, a different kind of misery is setting in, all while Zhenya and Boris live fairly pristine lives with no external devastation that the eye can see. Their son going missing never changes their dynamic nor do they come together in a time of personal crisis. They only dig their heels in deeper, clawing at old wounds, rubbing salt in the wounds of their already dead relationship and times long gone.
Loveless is a deeply tragic film, but it’s also a very frustrating film. It’s bleak and oppressive in its heaviness. The truth is, the characters are so unflinching, so cold, brutal, and so passive–yet somehow always in a constant state of anger with each other–that it’s hard to get past any of that in order to sympathize with them. And Zvyaginstev doesn’t want us to, either, not with the film’s unshakable need to make them irredeemable. The story does spend a bit more time with Zhenya than it does Boris, but both of their characters are pretty terrible. Still, in the end, it’s not wholly clear what Zvyaginstev is getting at and all the while many questions take shape without any sense of where they land within the story. Are the former spouses doomed to be unhappy forever? Are they always going to blame each other for the state of their current affairs? Did they secretly feel relieved after Alyosha’s disappearance because that ultimately means their true freedom from each other? Even in the midst of their own son’s disappearance, all the personal drama is still centered on Zhenya and Boris and they’re relentless to the point of exhaustion.
Loveless is ultimately a test of patience. Zvyaginstev aims to portray characters completely devoid of any kind of emotion save for one and the title of the film is it’s ultimate accomplishment, because you won’t find any love at all in its two hour run time. Perhaps there’s more to read into with the juxtaposition of the everyday misery to war-torn misery that’s meant to elicit a response, but that’s giving it too much credit since the events happening in Ukraine are an afterthought, washed out voices on TV. Loveless is only concerned with its characters remaining stagnant, and so we can never feel anything other than frustration and distance from them and their tragedy and this drags out the film, taking it to places that, in retrospect, don’t do anything for the audience or the story itself.