It’s becoming clear that Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Russia is a palatable vision for Western audiences. He confirms a suspicion that Western intellectual and political elites have about those mysterious lands: there is something intrinsic in the people – or in the environment – that corrupts. In all Zyyagintsev’s films, the permanence of nature offers a parallel for a country which, despite its tumultuous history, has something intransigent at its core. The rivers in The Return (2003) watch the brothers’ journey. Tree branches bookend proceedings in Elena (2011). In Leviathan (2014), a sheer cliff face is tracked slowly. All suggest immovability and fatalism. In his latest effort, Loveless (2018), we have deciduous trees in the opening shots. These woods are blighted – the inevitable location of missing child, Alyosha. We see one of them – naked and trembling – from below, when in an early scene, Alyosha throws a bit of tape into the tangles. We revisit this image at the close of the film. Nothing has changed; nothing can change. This is the same mindset that allows Western journalists to characterise Russia as a place of menace and authority. Contemporary Russia does not emerge out of a historical moment; it flows from an eternal spirit that bends towards the unbridled ‘father figure’. All this is ideology plain and simple, and it’s hokum.
Of course, Loveless is more subtle than its Western readers. Everyone knows that it’s about a missing boy. But don’t let that fool you. We’re a long way from Gone Girl (2014), Prisoners (2013) or Spoorloos (1988). The subject matter belies the tone and narrative of the film. There are no twists; the drama – what there is of it – is subdued; and the dominant affect is anomie, not suspense. A scene in which the father, Boris, listens to a news broadcast about the possibility of new legislation against ‘apocalyptic sentiments’ reminds us that we’re watching an emotional armageddon.
Boris traipses through an abandoned building. His son used the basement as a sanctuary from neglect and white-knuckled parental conflict. What is this huge structure? We’re given long-shots of Boris as he enters each room. The first has a giant trough in the centre. It could, once upon a time, have been a swimming pool. Are we in an old leisure centre? Upstairs there are rows of chairs, some uprooted and scattered randomly. Could this room have been a lecture theatre? Was this a school or university? Whatever it once was is irretrievable. Now the yarrow sprouts and copper greens.
If this ruin was a municipal building of some sort then the collective spirit that built it has been replaced by avarice and narcissism. The public spaces in Loveless speak to a stratified society: the gated community where Zhenya’s hate-filled Orthodox mother lives; Boris’ office, where his anonymity allows him to sneak in late; a restaurant – which we enter, enigmatically, from the point of view of a flirtatious customer – where a party of women toast to ‘love and selfies’; the upmarket beauty salon that Zhenya owns. And then there are the homes. The aspirational dwelling is a sleek bungalow, with geometric surfaces and minimal interior design. Hell is the apartment block. Surrounded by people but all alone. In an early scene, Alyosha looks out onto the city. The focus shifts from the buildings in the distance to the foregrounded rain. When the child goes missing the neighbours see nothing. The leader of the volunteers is surprised: ‘Really? Nothing?’ ‘Nothing.’ During the search, Boris investigates the stairwells. In a stark, beautiful shot, we see him leaning on a balcony halfway up the block, hundreds of house lights half-illuminating the rain.