The most important thing to understand about Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest film, Loveless, is that it is a critical work made under unfree conditions. The subtleties of the contemporary system of social, political, and artistic control in Russia are not an area in which I have expertise; nor, frankly, am I an expert on the working of such systems in general. I’ll leave political science and sociology for the relevant “-ists,” but as a critic of the arts, to neglect this fact would be irresponsible. To interpret this fact, however, is just as difficult, for a number of complex and interwoven reasons.
All this is to say that we should be cautious in both interpreting and meta-interpreting Loveless. That caution is tricky, however, because Loveless appears to be screamingly obvious in its intent and workings. That obviousness is surprising, and itself invites further inquiry into what it is and what it’s about, inquiry that the film seems to anticipate in its focus on in-between moments, moments of transit and approach. Obviousness is, in this case, far from synonymous with unintelligent, uninsightful, or unengaging. In fact, it is unusually intriguing in this case, even as Loveless itself otherwise lacks much of the dimensionality on-screen that usually compels viewers.
Loveless is about the dissolving marriage of Muscovites Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin). Each are absorbed with their own superficial tribulations – Zhenya her appearance and social media presence, Boris his job – and their new lovers, and neither is engaged with son Alexey (Matvey Novikov). That’s why it takes them days to even notice that Alexey has gone missing, and when they start a frantic effort to find him, they find that there is little help on offer from the sclerotic institutions that surround them.
Loveless is an odd sort of period piece, the kind that doesn’t care about getting details right. Instead, it’s set in the recent past to make a particular point, to trace a particular sociopolitical arc. It’s timings – Alexey is born the year Russia’s current president was first elected and vanishes the year he was elected to his third term – seem eerily echoed by the timing of its American release. If you do some quick googling about Zvyagintsev, you’ll see that he is far from shy in both his statements and his work in where he’s coming from, and Loveless (funded without any support from the usual state arts organs) seems no exception.
The trouble with Loveless is that it’s more or less a big allegory, and as allegory, it is as blunt as a hammer, right through its conclusion which is literally a person wearing a jumpsuit that says “RUSSIA” as they run on a treadmill in a winter snow. It’s also, however, thin on character and narrative – it often fails (if that was its intent) to find the sweet spot where compelling story can fit with the kind of metaphor and symbolism it wants to traffic in. Long stretches of the film – long entries and exits, repeated gestures, scenes of conversation and engagement that unspool for far longer than they would be in a more conventional narrative film – exist to support that allegorical structure and its many symbolic tokens, but lack both the storytelling and cinematic juice to hold a viewer’s interest. It works best as an illustrative work about what it’s about; it’s smart, and it’s insightful, and it’s admirable. It’s just not very watchable.