Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev, 124 mins, Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Varvara Shmykova, Matvey Novikov.
A continent unseen
As winters black and white poles contrast the snow covered land and roads blend into fields the view in the opening of Loveless is of a lake with fallen trees alongside tall leafless ones. Beside them runs a pathway with lampposts high and marking out a route between neighbourhoods. On the horizon as the film scopes out tower blocks of mass housing and the community of a modern Russian city appear. It moves onto a scene where a school discharges into the afternoon Alyosha and his friends are despatched from a careworn rudimentary education positing a regular uncared existence of a society in its own limbo. The vastness of Russia occurs to me in reflection, from St Petersburg in its isolated North Western location from the Urals to the Soviet Kazakhstan and the lands forested and regionally contested over centuries where socialism became a lost ideology, this modernity is playing out right now.
When Director Andrei Zvyagintsev says : ‘Living in Russia is like being in a minefield’ it seems futile to suggest it is a generality after viewing this film. The horror of that is where the Leviathan director takes us. Into the minefield. Exploding tropes and myths by using frameworks of cinema familiar to audiences seeing drama of the most perturbingly psychological kind where films – L’Avventura, Scenes from a Marriage are mentioned as similar themes, take us in it is gloriously but troublingly insightful.
A couple are in the process of separating, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) Boris, (Aleksey Rozin) and on hearing an argument, itself a witness to his solitude and the lack of love from his parents, 12-year-old boy Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) goes missing. The household is in a uniformly drab tower block and he is seen initially wistfully looking out over the winter cloak of white snow into the deep horizon of a vast Russian urbanity from his bedroom. The forest and nature is a form of consolation but his world is made ever more harsh by the insensitivity of the mother and father whose only child Alyosha is, giving him little love or conversation. Zhenya has moved on, Boris has moved on and while they embark on selling their comfortable apartment, the despairing ‘elephant in the room’ taking care of Alyosha, hovers and causes even more antagonism which Alyosha is an unfortunate witness to. Ignored and distraught he disappears with the abandonment itself becoming an almost fated outcome given the weaknesses and the couples selfishness.
Boris has a new partner and it’s a bit of deja vu with love and kisses for him like ‘starting over’. His younger companion is less sure and new to the expectations of making a home. She is also a step removed but not as far as Zhenya, from her own mother. Some of the pleasant rites of passage are visible in her outlook and it is not played or cast as naivety but as raw concern of new horizons. In the case of Zhenya her partner has a daughter reached only by Skype whose fortune is outside Russia. He is a oligarch type or class protected older man living in a futuristic ‘dacha’ which allows his thai chi to evolve. Zhenya has a protector and savior after the mistake she made hastily leaving home and her cantankerous mother for Boris it appears.
The film follows relentlessly the intensity of emotions clashing around the central loss of Alyosha. His disappearance heightens the immediacy of untangling the weave and knots of a broken loveless marriage. Each scene is carefully economically placed in a line of almost fated tragedy but the inferences and questions which arose are put to the viewer as whether or not a good outcome will materialise. As a type the film could be categorized as a procedural crime thriller but as Andrei Zvyagintsev insists through his artful direction it is much bolder and thought entangling.
The tension throughout is heart felt and the possibilities of loss are slowly dawning on and emerging from the recesses of Boris and Zhenya’s insular thoughts. From the moment the rescuers come on board an cautious element of optimism, ever so small but present arrives – after a very well handled portrayal of the police element – a huge and stoic but helpful officer puts the cards on the table as to the probabilities and the needed actions. The apparatus of Policing is as tough as nails the film proposes but their is goodness within.
With the form of a crime drama this Russian hiatus of intense emotional drama is a warning of how brutal our world is becoming. The themes of realism in concert with dark nationalist, unrelenting Religious angst ridden theocracies, our complaint and complacent conformity is shockingly portrayed through the medium of a lost child.
Disappearance is a wholly unconscionable notion for a parent whose duty is foremost the child while the breakdown of their aspirations affect the state of their family unit. The forces around allow freedom of individual choice. The central protagonist is Boris, (Aleksey Rozin) a lookalike Fidel Castro. I recently learnt of the early demise through mental illness that the late Fidel Castro’s son who bore a striking resemblance to him recently took his own life. Boris is not easy to like and his workplace environment is a large corporate type well heeled office and it appears as though his job is to create fake news. The whole building is in the process of regurgitating propaganda for the Government via. an agency run by a Religious zealot whose compromises regarding family issues are finite. Zhenya is in charge of a Beauty salon and is in an orbit of similar disappointments as conversations with her employees draw out lines of dissatisfaction but in a pleasant stoical way. Society is to blame. In the background, sometimes foreground there are TV broadcasts of Russia going wrong and the outsiders being to blame. Society is to blame but not their own society. Rebellions are put down and countered by the fake diet of news the outlets spill out.
This vastness of the Directors ‘minefield’ is part of the bewilderment that franks this film. How the individual is facing contested self image, from the day they are born through a fixed national identity from which it is virtually without moving away to escape. Escape routes are taken in parts of the story but none are a satisfactory retreat or utopian alternative. It is a quarter of a century on since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The currency of the occupation and sequestration of the Crimea is seen here. The former autonomous republic of the Soviet Union, now a region of Ukraine, is configured into the narrative to show the lack of progress and the democratic deficit apparent through the world to observers. The West as ‘actors’ may maliciously have a hand in the Crimea annex but whether it does or not is merely a statement of man made divisions.
There then is the fate of the individual in the context of family and in a wider sense extrapolated here in the workplace where Boris is in a setting where family is a signal of unity of purpose and it is given a religious slant here also. The Lutheran idea of individualism is challenged by the preorder of Catholicism and adherence without scrutiny. The theory is that (Protestant suicide attributed to free spirits) the greater concessions a confessional group, the less it (Russia) dominates lives, the less its cohesion and vitality makes to individual judgement. In this film it is perhaps being said that – without the suicidal propensity angle – that the weakness of the mind when empowered by thinking and ‘sensible’ things developing reflective powers renders them susceptible to morbid impressions. So is the film portraying in a minor part of its vast observation that there is a failure arising in individuals not accepting their affinity within community and necessary interplay? There is the added dilemma of the titles presence itself. Lovelessness existing maybe because the lack of self control, earlier as youths when bad choices were made and for intractable headstrong reasons – or finding in their individuality sensations and temporary joy from exploration and satiated desires. Such pitfalls are almost arbitrary in most lives. The form of the film is of it taking time and taking an external view of the many sexual intercourses – they are short on words and are for the most part in one take – makes me think the intensity of the pleasure seeking is being portrayed paramount as each characters driver. There is time taken also after intercourse when to differing degrees they express their new found love as a place where they are safe from the outside. So what does it say about the presence of love in a place where other sacrifices are made for the common ‘good’. The male is seen to ignore these emotions as the society is harmful from whichever way you look so they take it as it’s found, by finding also what they seek. The family togetherness is implicit. The detachment from the birth family is evident in each relationship.
When the disappearance of Alyosha happens another element takes on huge significance. In the absence of a ‘proper’ process of police management of the required intensive searches it is the whole community who rally voluntarily and in a shape which is performed to take charge of every forensic and civil aspect of the search. This is again implicit of the community in service for others. Where the state has failed this is the alarmingly professional organised communities answer. Therein implies the strength of Russians beyond the stereotypes of indolence and trammeled individuals found routinely. Each has forsaken their time and individual diversions, needs, to focus on finding Alyosha. They have his welfare in mind untiringly.
A hero emerges in the form of a leader of the large community unit in the shape of a pragmatic and smart coordinator, veteran (Aleksey Fateev). Some of the most harrowing scenes are during the period of the searches and stoic stark raw emotions grip with the growing tension of not finding Alyosha. The searches are coordinated and segmented and woven into the parallel story of the couples breakup and their new relationships forming and the connections each has with their ‘estranged’ families.
The world itself is not loveless but a host to our misguided often secular illusions.
There is then the division individuals within a family unit is on trial and this is central to the films narrative.
Russia is both a place and an image. The Sochi Olympics in 2014 came into play in Loveless in a simple but significant role. The tracksuit top which the freshly reinvented and reborn Zhenya wears as she steps onto her outdoor treadmill at her lovers and now her home, is a Bosco white and red shock of the new top. Emblazoned with Russia across it the notion – it is symbolic – is challenged by its director Andrei Zvyagintsev as a mere coincidence of our times. Without synecdoche it would not amount to a message of any kind he mildly insists. An actor from the town of Novosibirsk he is responsible as one of the most respected directors of his time in putting out work which is formative and provocative and using storytelling from the initial success, The Return, (2003) about brotherly tensions on reengaging with their father on a fishing holiday, through The Banishment, (2007) Elena, (2011) which is a story of a capital class and marital gloom, to the large scope of examination in rural Russia of Leviathan, (2014) marking a tense conflict in expansive steepes uniquely epic in its portrait of a Russian psyche. The beast is universal, a sinuous, spiraling, undulating, or serpentine line or linear motif, in the obvious mode of Thomas Hobbes philosophical treatise on the organisation of society politically. It floats and pins you and grabs you by the throat with unsettling force. Ballet never was meant to be pure and white as the Russians understood, understand.
If talk of synecdoche is to be made it is only on reflection due to the cinematic exposure and storytelling quality found often in Russian novels from Gogol to Solzhenitsyn and the play’s we are accustomed to seeing being replaced in this time by art of a different luminosity. Film has come a long way to provide other than features in the pleasuredome. Conflicted memories and historical propaganda are challenges filmmakers can treat with the memes of our times. In Loveless, Siri gets a question, so the Oracle is in the detail of storytelling in a candid frank and shocking way not for pure entertainment or underpinning presumption or prejudice. We are as my review of Loveless pressed, 25 years on from the dissolution of the Soviet Union and with sport being the glue of the masses, sans Cicero, about to embark on a post Sochi, World Cup, Andrei Zvyagintsev is probably more concerned with us getting his first name right, Andrey or Andrei, than fixating on the politics which inevitably come with filmmaking. The production of his work takes many players to embrace the work for multiple reasons. Factor in the Russian state support of only Leviathan his task is difficult enough. Shaping the story in a plausible and parallel synecdoche path is a skill which we can ourselves welcome and be fortunate to be presented with. No one actually makes or draws similarities between the films in their construct but it is a common theme to appreciate the human examination in a fully coherent form is achieved in each individual work. When asked about his politics he is clear in those separations given his role is as a filmmaker not as a protagonist or spokesperson for a viewpoint. He considers for example the period over which he has developed his oeuvre. “In the 1990’s there were real hopes. But now, with the re-Stalinisation and the re-Sovietisation, there are negative tendencies.” *. In the report noted it is recollected by Andrei Zvyagintsev the appeal of the mirrors reflection is undeniably at times unattractive. Something un-contestable..
*via. translation in Irish Times 07.02.18 interview, Donald Clarke.
The simple form this film takes draws you into the harrowing story of the disappearance of a 12 year old boy and provides an unsettling experience seldom found in cinema. With Director Andrei Zvyagintsev‘s commitment to delving into the conditions faced by his fellow Russians. The political constraints and formation of society detaching itself through state indifference and corruption from the family of community is foresaken in the materialistic pursuits found on the edges. The individual is found floundering and having lost the direction of shaping a meaningful life. In the disappearance of a Alyosha many realities become exposed.
For the viewer, this one, it is compassion which is driving through this film despite the invidious world of circumstances and is seen through the societal response. The true egalitarian response when harm is encountered. The edginess of the relationships pale into – albeit parallel dominions of supposed utopian thinking – minor concerns. The real protagonist is the duel of state and the suppression of the individual and at what cost is the freedom sought to be accounted for. The polarities are Religious, Molecular, Unknowns, Universal and contribute to a very vexing movie. It was hard to sympathise with the couple at its heart yet there was some sign of they felt enormous pain and an outcome would be found to satiate the pessimism and sense of disorder that grew as the film progressed. What outcome is likely. You will have to sit gripped through its daunting telling to find out and draw your own conclusions. A spiritual minefield.
8 February 2018
Opening at Queens Film Theatre Belfast 9 February 2018 until 15 February 2018.
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