A relentless, chilling portrait of a damaged and damaging marriage, the aptly titled “Loveless” never pulls its punches. The mutual hatred of a dreadful Moscow couple is depicted with clinical precision, and it’s all the more disturbing because they happen to have a 12-year-old son. The woman will reveal that she was disgusted at her first sight of him as a newborn.
That’s the world presented by director Andrey Zvyagintsev, and things will only get worse. The boy (Matvey Novikov) is aghast at the recriminations and acrimony of his parents, who can’t wait to split up (they both already have lovers). Overhearing his mother’s intention to send him away to boarding school, the boy abruptly vanishes — and it takes awhile for his parents even to notice that he’s gone.
Much of the movie is devoted to the efforts by the mother and father — Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin) — to discover his fate, though in reality they have precious little use for the youngster.
At the same time, the filmmaker builds a portrait of a spiritually bereft society: News reports focus on the war in Ukraine and the dangers of mass hysteria resulting from apocalyptic fears. This is nothing new for Zvyagnitsev, whose outstanding “Leviathan” (2014) was in part a scathing view of the malaise of 21st-century Russia.
Early on, the police admit to the parents that they are so overworked as to be unable to cope with disappearances like the boy’s, so the searches are conducted by groups of experienced volunteers. There’s a haunting quality to the repeated images of squads of walkers traversing open country, forests or derelict buildings, of which there appear to be many.
Meanwhile, we observe the parents’ new relationships. Zhenya has taken up with a wealthy — and noticeably older — businessman; Boris has already impregnated the young woman he’s been seeing. Eventually, the boy’s absence begins to sink in to his miserable parents, which seems to intensify the horror of the situation. One of the film’s most harrowing scenes occurs when they are called to view what may be the remains of their son.
“Loveless” — a nominee for best foreign language picture at this year’s Oscars — is difficult viewing, and may remind audiences of the work of Michael Haneke, who also casts a cold eye on the human race. Zvyagintsev is Haneke’s equal when he keeps his focus on individuals, but perhaps uses a heavier hand when it comes to social critique, as is evidenced in “Loveless.”
Still, this is a film that’s likely to stick with you because of its exceptional intensity. You may find yourself wondering, long after the credits roll, what on Earth is in store for Boris’ unborn child?
Starring Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin and Matvey Novikov. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. In Russian with English subtitles.
Rated R for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image. Check listings for theaters. 2 hours, 7 minutes.
Bottom line: Intense film that will stick with the viewer
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