Cannes 2017: Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless

On Film / The Daily — May 18, 2017

Loveless is “two hours of gorgeously gloomy existential despair courtesy of the well-regarded Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Often touted as an heir to Tarkovsky, Russian cinema’s other famously austere Andrey, Zvyagintsev previously competed at Cannes with Leviathan (2014), which won the jury’s screenwriting award and went on to score an Oscar nomination for foreign-language film. Like that earlier film, Loveless is a shatteringly bleak family drama that expands into a corrosive critique of its country’s social, political and spiritual ills.”

At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang “expected his bitterness, his allegorically politicized critique of Russian society, its corruption and cruelty. But nothing could have truly prepared us for the apocalyptic despair of Loveless, perhaps his most brilliant, but also most profoundly pessimistic film to date that, couched in such viscerally intelligent, skillful filmmaking, may also be his most persuasive.”

“Boris (Alexei Rozin), bearded and officious, a kind of mildly saddened Teddy bear, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), beautiful and knife-edged, with a buried despair of her own, still live together in the same apartment,” explains Variety’s Owen Gleiberman. “Their marriage, or what’s left of it, has reached the toxic point of no return. No one understands this better than Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), their pale and passive 12-year-old son, who doesn’t do much besides stare at his computer between crying fits. When Alyosha disappears without a trace, his emotionally estranged parents have to come together to search for him. But no, Loveless isn’t a story about how the search for Alyosha brings Boris and Zhenya closer together. . . What the movie is about, in a way that’s both potent and oblique, is something larger than the charred ashes of one dead marriage.”

“As the hunt for Alyosha broadens out, so too do its implications,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “As is the way with Zvyagintsev’s work. . . the small story at hand offers an opaque but pitiless critique on the director’s native Russia at large. A radio news program warns of an increase in ‘apocalyptic sentiments’ among the population, while deep divisions in society—financial, geographical, generational—all play their part in stymieing the search.”

Loveless reminded me of the same director’s Elena,” notes the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw, “and it also has the unflinching moral seriousness of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. The story of a disappearance which betokens some larger, metaphysical dysfunction has something of Antonioni’s L’Avventura—a film whose importance and example continues unabated—and the single, static shot of a school about to let the pupils out may have taken something else from that other touchstone: Michael Haneke’s Hidden. The grim presence in this film of elderly mothers—secular Buddhas of reactionary cynicism who show every sign of inducing their children to become their duplicate—reminded me of Philip Larkin’s lines about man handing on misery to man and it deepening like a coastal shelf.”

“All of this might register as an overdose of fatalism if Spivak and Rosin didn’t deliver such absorbing, fragile performances that veer from dramatic outbursts to quiet, introverted glares,” writes IndieWire’s Eric Kohn. “Ultimately, though, Loveless belongs to Zyvagintsev’s own startling formalism.”

“Collaborating once again with several of his favorite below-the-line craftspeople, including editor Anna Mass, production designer Andrey Ponkratov and DP and MVP Mikhail Krichman, a cinematographer who never met a rain-flecked window he didn’t love, Zvyagintsev maintains the exacting technical standards for which he’s known,” adds Leslie Felperin in the Hollywood Reporter.

More from Dan Fainaru (Screen), Fabien Lemercier (Cineuropa), and Barbara Scharres (RogerEbert.com), and, in Spanish, Mónica Delgado (desistfilm) and Diego Lerer. Deadline’s Mike Fleming Jr. reports that Sony Pictures Classics has picked up all North and Latin American rights.

Updates: Loveless is “as pitilessly bleak as anything Zvyagintsev has made, in large part because it identifies no clear rooting interest,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “As a character study, Loveless is as blunt as its title: We’re essentially watching horrible people go through something worse, and not improving one bit through the ordeal. The film, on the other hand, does improve, but only when Zvyagintsev shifts focus from the social lives of these selfish, petty spouses to the procedural details of a missing-child investigation—a plot queasily complicated by the lack of affection these particular parents have for their particular missing child.”

For Blake Williams, dispatching to Filmmaker, “‘technically impressive’ is about as close to a compliment as I can lob at this misogynistic, portentous and vapid film.”

“Although Leviathan, Zvyagintsev’s previous and far-superior effort, was hardly a masterclass in nuance, a palpable sense of empathy and flashes of humor largely compensated for its lack of subtlety,” writes Giovanni Marchini Camia at the Film Stage. “These are sorely lacking in Loveless. The film’s title may refer to the protagonists’ marriage and its symbolic connotations, but it’s also a perfect description of Zvyagintsev’s treatment of his subject matter.”

“It’s all elliptical, and what’s meant to feel portentous feels like borrowed meaning,” writes Emily Yoshida at Vulture. “Loveless gives us a multicourse meal of social ills, too dispersed to feel like a thesis, yet too chilly to feel like a raw, unbridled tantrum.”

“There's a strong whiff of a morality play here,” writes Time Out’s Dave Calhoun: “a couple being punished for their failed relationship and poor parenting, and representing a broader rot in society. There are unsubtle hints at the disassociating role of new technology in our lives, while a late shot of Zhenya on a treadmill wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with ‘Russia,’ just after we've heard reports on the TV of the war in Ukraine, feels a little too on the nose.”

“Are his points too on the nose?” asks Tim Grierson at Paste. “Perhaps. But one of Loveless’ great strengths is how it cannily withholds clear emotional involvement with its characters—only to set us up for one blindsiding salvo at the end. When the film concludes, you may find yourself wanting to watch it again to fully absorb the journey Zvyagintsev took you on. And because Loveless is so accomplished, the repeat viewing promises to be deeply rewarding.”

More from John Bleasdale (CineVue, 5/5) and Eric Lavallee (Ioncinema, 3.5/5).

Updates, 5/19: “This small, cynical story has large scope—Russia as a corrosive, dying marriage producing delinquent offspring—and the spaces in which it takes place (rich flats, the boy’s school, a ruined complex, a forest) fill the canvas with bold, expansive reach,” writes Notebook editor Daniel Kasman. “Zvyagintsev films the world large, however modest the story, and this film world impresses upon those within, as well as us observers, its fulsome, innate and unsubtle monumentality.”

“It’s a vision of breathtaking, casual cruelty that inexorably shifts from the personal into an indictment of a soul-sick country,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

“It’s rare to encounter a film as subtext-repellent as Loveless,” writes Tommaso Tocci for the International Cinephile Society. “Most jarringly, a few empty-satire attempts at depicting a selfie-obsessed society are luckily lame enough to be brushed aside quickly, while repeated allusions to the developing crisis in Ukraine . . . at least dovetail nicely with the story’s thunderous momentum—a world facing impending doom with matter-of-fact nastiness. But the final shot takes all that and makes perplexingly explicit a parallel of radical, on-the-nose banality. Unfortunate as it may be, this is however not enough to derail a film of such raw intensity.”

Updates, 5/20:Loveless works on a base emotional level—dear god, how it works on that level,” writes Bilge Ebiri for the Village Voice. “Watching these vast, cavernous spaces, these huge buildings and dead fields, these buzzing interactions where everything seems geared towards pairing off, we start to wonder how one boy could ever be found.”

“Zvyagintsev has been brave enough to construct his story around bad people and bad parents,” writes Donald Clarke in the Irish Times. “They are selfish. They are unmannered. They shut themselves off from empathy until confronted with an unavoidably horrible reminder of Alyosha’s potential fate. There are such people. Zvyagintsev offers no excuses. But he does engage with reasons.”

Update, 5/21: The BFI’s Geoff Andrew finds that “for the most part Zvyagintsev again gets the balance between credible characterisation of individuals and state-of-the-nation commentary just right. And the final moments, when we’re back with the jackdaws and the wintry trees, are a piercing and poignant expression of simple cinematic poetry.”

Updates, 5/23: Sight & Sound editor Nick James: “What’s most wonderful about Loveless is its careful, relentless visual style, especially the shots that take in the more oblique, seemingly peripheral scenes, such as the search groups in the woods and the moment when a random schoolteacher is seen to wipe her black board and clear up her stuff. Somehow Zvyagintsev feels more contemporary even than Haneke right now.”

“After Leviathan, Zvyagintsev had a number of scripts that were ready to go,” notes Eugene Hernandez, dispatching to Film Comment, “but then he heard the story of a couple whose son went missing while they were in the midst of divorce proceedings. This time, however, he would need to find new sources of financial support to make the film, because his previous one—and the international attention it received—instigated a state ban on funding movies critical of the Russian society and government. ‘The government of Russia disliked Leviathan,’ said producer Alexander Rodnyansky at the film’s press conference. ‘We didn’t need to embarrass them again and decided to do the movie on our own.’” Rodnyansky then explained how the coproduction came together.

Update, 5/25: “The film begins in October of 2012 and ends in February of 2015,” Zvyagintsev tells Bilge Ebiri in the Voice, “and, during this period, we experienced a lot of losses: If, in 2012, people still had hope for change and for some spirit of freedom, by 2015 there was complete apathy and lack of understanding of the perspectives that we had. For example, it’s tragic that we lost our neighbor, the Ukraine, like we lost a child.”

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