Loveless, the new film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a masterpiece, a brutal, uncompromising, stunningly well crafted and extraordinarily observant depiction of modern life, relationships, parenting, and society. At every turn it is revealing and stunningly precise about the human condition. It offers the viewer a chance not only to reflect on their own life but to truly search their soul. Like the very, very best films, I believe that if I listen to it, I can be a slightly better person for it.
Simply put, it’s about the final days of a relationship that’s gone very, very sour. Zhenya and Boris are a thirty-something, professional-class, attractive couple living in one of the hundred and twenty-five administrative districts of Moscow, an area of grey skies, snowy woods, and scores of identical grey high-rises, which are reminiscent of “projects” in the West but here are obviously considered desirable housing. One night, having yet another of those final, horrendously savage arguments couples have before they finally move apart, they set in motion events that are terrifying, deeply sad, and all too common.
They say conflict is drama, and Loveless has it in spades. They also say characters need to be likeable. That’s not always true; what they need to be is relatable. Zhenya and Boris are the opposite of likeable – they are despicable, and Zvyagintsev’s disgust for them is palpable – but they are totally relatable. Every one of us will see some part of ourselves reflected in them. They are monsters, and we recognise the monstrous elements in ourselves. We may not do what they do, but we’ve all thought about it, and we’ve all done some of it. We can relate to, if not their actions, then their motivations, their frustrations, and their dreams. Despite their awfulness, we can only hold them in contempt by also examining ourselves, and that’s part of the genius of the script, and the amazing performances of Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin.
Zvyagintsev backs up the superb script with exquisite direction. The wide-screen cinematography is the best I’ve seen so far this year, rendering the Yuzhnoye Tushino District, often seen through the windows of the brutalist concrete high-rises, simultaneously deeply depressing and achingly beautiful, all slate skies, grey lakes, skeletal trees and shimmering snow. The interior production design is cold, precise, and startling; keep an eye out for the bedsheets of Zhenya’s lover, the cars the characters drive, the workplace cafeteria. Everything is there for a reason, and everything has something to say, about the characters, the situation, about modern Russia. And the score is exquisite; like the visuals, it is simultaneously gorgeous and distressing. I can still feel the movie, days after seeing it.
It’s a portrait of modern, urban, professional domestic Russians we don’t often get, or at least, with this specificity. They’re cursed with phones, social media, selfies and all their attendant false aspirations just as we are in the west, and, as with us all, these things are destroying their family intimacies. The film’s title, like the film itself, is brutal, but it’s brutally accurate.