There were two main choices for my viewing pleasure this week, Russian picture Loveless or the Donald Crowhurst biopic The Mercy starring Colin Firth and Rachel Weisz. At this time in the cinematic calendar, it is always wise to follow the releases that have nominations attached to them, so Colin and Rachel have been set aside for now. To my eternal shame, this marks the first of the Best Foreign Language Film nominations that I have seen this awards season. I’ll catch up before March 4th, I promise!
Loveless is a strikingly bleak drama that tells the story of a divorcing couple whose lives are thrown in to turmoil when their neglected feeling son suddenly goes missing. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is a seemingly disinterested mother, more invested in her social media presence and new older boyfriend than her offspring, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) is a meek father figure, already moving on with another pregnant partner, and twelve year old Alexey (Matvey Novikov) is the weepy, desperate child amidst the tension, overhearing snippets of being sent to boarding school and the army simply to get him out of the way.
As Aleksey is discovered missing, no evidence of his whereabouts at home or at school, the narrative proceeds as a sombre combination of crime thriller and introspective drama, with the film’s primary focus being on the reactions and coping mechanisms of the parents rather than the twists and turns of a more traditional crime story. Let me be clear, this isn’t a cut and dry murder mystery story with a satisfying, gift wrapped ending. The disappearance of Aleksey, whilst a gripping part of the narrative, is more of a catalyst in the exploration of both Zhenya and Boris. It’s an examination of not knowing what you have got until it’s gone, of the different priorities that individuals in the same environment and situation might have, and honestly an exercise in just how unlikable you can make two protagonists whilst still presenting a captivating film. There is a cold, clinical tone to the film, one that deliberately requests you feel little to no empathy for the characters who, whilst not deserving their fate, certainly aided in its arrival through their attitudes and negligence.
In an interesting thematic choice, Loveless is set during a particularly turbulent and provocative time for the country, in 2012 amidst the looming backdrop of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. This severe political tone serves to further add to the feelings of hostility that the film evokes throughout. It would be hard to describe the viewing experiences an enjoyable, but in the same breathe there is no denying the filmmakers have achieved what they set out to do with great efficiency and technique. It is a drama that bristles with spitefulness, rancour, resentment and ultimately desperation, not themes that you would immediately associate with a pleasant watch. It screams in its quietness, making the few and far between raucous emotional outbursts so much more affecting and poignant. There are certain shots and sequences in Loveless that I feel will stay with me for a very long time.
The film is brought to visceral life by its leading actors, tasked with keeping the viewer invested in a narrative where no real heroes can be found. As Zhenya, Maryana Spivak exudes the kind of disinterested hostility towards her son that wakes a paternal protective instinct in even the unlikeliest of audience members (that would be me). She portrays, with unwavering conviction, a character so unlikeable that you even pause for a second to empathise when she really does start to uncover her humanity in the final act. A real ice queen for the cold setting of the picture. As father Boris, Aleksey Rozin does an incredibly effective job of presenting a character who is so disillusioned with the outcome of his life to date that he feels no pull of responsibility to anyone or anything, doomed to repeat the mistakes of his first marriage with the already worried and already pregnant girlfriend that he now has. Together, the two parents are so hostile and so bristly together that it is hard to picture any time of happiness before the picture’s narrative. A truly bleak portrayal of just how sour a union between two people can turn.
Though he has perhaps only ten minutes of total screen time, Matvey Novikov as young Alexey manages to shatter your heart in to one thousand tiny pieces before his mysterious disappearance. His short time on screen paints a picture of a child so painfully, truthfully miserable, so bereft of any feelings of familial love and security, that it actually works to second handedly improve the performances of the actors playing his unlikeable parents. The impact that Novikov makes in the opening twenty minutes of the picture, leave you, or left me, at least, reeling for the remainder of the film. Utterly wrenching and utterly believable, which is what makes the picture so uncomfortable yet compelling.
Overall, Loveless is a complex foreign drama that is so much more than the “missing child mystery” that some outlets are trying to pigeon hole it as. As I said, I have nothing to compare it to as of yet, but it certainly feels like a worthy Oscar nomination to me. It’s tough viewing, infuriating at times, but importantly always compelling. A grey palleted window in to a world and in to a family that is almost too bleak to bear.