Written by Jessie Tu
At the beginning of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017), we meet Boris and Zhenya, who are in the middle of divorcing. They have a son - an inconvenient reminder of their past union. Both parties have decayed into chilling contempt for each other. Each time they are forced to share space, their vitriol and bitterness is so visceral, so violent, so familiar. Here are two people whose hearts have rotted into something ugly, derelict, unfulfilled. One day, the school calls Zhenya to inform her that her son has not attended school for two days. The film glides into the narrative we think we’ve come here for —two parents looking for their missing child. But this is not really a film about a search. Director Zvyagintsev is more interested in examining the poison within a patriarchal family unit than making any statement about modern-day Russia. His achievement lies in his careful direction combined with a well-crafted script. He said in an interview that family is where people open up and take off all the masks and show their real suffering. Elsewhere, he has said that the film was inspired by other stories about the collapse of a marriage, including Scenes from a Marriage (1983) directed by Ingmar Bergman, which is the narrative seed of Noah Baumbach’s Netflix hit Marriage Story (2019). The disdain between these two adults is palpable and vital to the film’s dark tenor. Zhenya’s rage is so impressive and hungry. Boris’ anger is so repressed and cloaked it has deformed him, though not enough to stop him from spreading his seed elsewhere. He goes shopping for groceries with his new lover. They return to her apartment and make love in one of the best sex scenes done of a heavily pregnant woman in recent, and therefore entire, film history. The lighting is exquisitely framed. Zvyagintsev said in an interview that he was inspired by Annie Leibovitz’s photography.
Watching the film feels like walking in and out of the rooms belonging to these characters; I am privy to their most private moments. It feels like watching real-life unfold. Here lies a realist narrative of dysfunction; of a decaying society, a scorching planet, and the ultimate death of the patriarchal unit in society. Our two characters hover at the centre of the film, their hostility depicted in a searing realism as only Zvyagintsev can pull off.
Loveless won Jury Prize at 2017 Cannes Film Festival, Best Cinematographer and Best Foreign Film at European Film Awards and secured a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards that year. The music is sparse, modern, minimalist. The composers, brothers Evgueni and Sacha Galperine wrote the score without seeing the film or reading the script. The hypnotic stirrings of the repetitive, off-metre single note played by the piano is so compelling, so addictive, the motif grew into an ear-worm for several days after. Early on, we hear a heavy-metal number appear while the two adults are forced by situation inside a car together, shaking us out of our comfort. It’s an ironic juxtaposition against the French-Russian composers’ synthesizer to a British metal band.
Beautifully crafted by cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, the film manages to expose the realism even within the utopia housing styles we witness the characters moving within and about. Through the film, we see the contrast from the natural world to a metropolis, from wealth to an abandoned factory, from modernity to annihilation. We circle these ideologies and spaces, ever questioning the society and the system on which human beings construct value, life and existence based on one’s own terms, however seemingly hard.
Loveless (2017) is now available on SBS on Demand.