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Loveless (Russian: Нелюбовь)

March 8, 2018

LlessMaybe this is a lament for the loss of corporate values in post-Communist Russia. No moral compass guides anyone except for a community volunteer who tries to help the parents locate their son. Others pursue adultery or take selfies.

In Moscow, at the end of the school day, students are departing on their way home. One twelve year old boy, Alexey, decides to take an indirect path home rather than using the regular city streets. Alexey takes a path which leads him to walk by a local river in a wooded area just on the outskirts of town. He appears to be in no particular rush to get home. His parents, Zhenya and Boris, are in the midst of obtaining a divorce, with much animosity. They are portrayed as having divergent and incompatible personalities. Both are trying to form new lives in new relationships.

One day, it is discovered that the boy has disappeared from home, and his mother calls the police for assistance. At first, the police see this as the simple case of a runaway child and expect the boy to return home within a day or two. However, when Alexey does not return, a volunteer group specializing in the search for missing persons takes over the case and promptly initiates a preliminary search for the boy by sending the parents to estranged relatives in the hope of locating him. They are first sent to see if Alexey is at his mother’s parents. Alexey is not there when they arrive, though their trip to visit her mother out of town is punctuated by tension between the estranged relatives and Boris is verbally berated and excoriated by Zhenya. On the return trip home, her verbal abuse escalates to the point that Boris discharges her on the rural roadway before they get back to town.

The failure of the police to find Alexey promptly escalates the search for him into an all out emergency missing persons search across the town and surrounding areas. A search of an abandoned municipal building from an old dilapidated city development project where Alexey was known to have visited turns up nothing. Finally, the parents are asked to come to the morgue to examine and try to identify the remains of a John Doe child of still unknown identity. The parents both deny that the disfigured dead child’s body is their son, though the experience of being put through the identification process is emotionally traumatic to them as they breakdown in tears of desperation, with Alexey still missing.

Later, Alexey’s mother has sold their apartment and workers begin dismantling wall hangings and appliances left behind in the now vacant apartment. Outside on the street, missing person posters of Alexey now canvas large parts of the city trying to seek help in locating the missing boy. The scene shifts to the nearby river by the wooded path which Alexey used to use to walk home after school and the view focuses on an extended landscape scene looking through naked winter branches of the surrounding very tall trees. The tree branches sway slightly against the winter sky with no sight of Alexey or anyone else among the naked winter branches.

Alyosha’s father, Boris (Alexei Rozin), the more beleaguered party in the combatant duo, is mostly concerned that he will lose his job if his born-again Christian boss finds out about the divorce. Only stable family men and women are hired and kept on board. What an ironic evolution in the once allegedly God-free society.

At the end, the empty, barren rooms, once occupied by the unhappy family and now stripped of its presence, somehow feel abandoned and sad even as one hopes that the new tenants will make for a happier place.

The image of parents in general and mothers in particular is harsh and unforgiving. Zhenya says she never wanted a child and was repulsed when she first held him, attitudes that have only grown more intense with time. She asks her lover if that makes her a monster. “The most beautiful monster in the world,” he purrs. Her own mom, equally onerous and devoid of maternal feelings, makes it clear that if Alyosha surfaces she will not take him in. Even Masha’s mother, a superficially more benign figure, is a harridan too. At the end she’s whining about the apartment’s congestion, suggesting that her grandchild be placed with other relatives, not because she is concerned with his well-being, but rather her own convenience. Of course, in light of the toddler’s brusque treatment at the hands of his father Boris, perhaps another home would be an improvement. But given the hard-edged, self-serving universe these characters occupy, it’ll probably make no difference either way.

The hunt inspires some of Zvyagintsev’s most impressive wide-screen imagery, long shots capturing groups of characters as they roam open landscapes in pursuit of the boy.

The final imagery is as evocative as the film’s first snippet. Now living with Anton in his glossy high-end apartment, Zhenya is working out on a treadmill as news of the Ukrainian War is broadcast in the background, her eyes almost glassily vacant.

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