‘Loveless’ Cannes Review: Gripping Russian Drama Delivers Gut Punch to Launch Competition

You can read Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film as the heartbreaking story of a missing child, or as the chronicle of a country that has lost its soul

Cannes Film Festival

Russia was in the news at the Cannes Film Festival on Wednesday, but in this case it had nothing to do with election hacking, fake news, FBI investigations or Oval Office meetings.

Instead, it was Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s drama “Loveless” (“Nelyubov”), which became the first film in the main competition to be unveiled when it screened for the press in the Salle Debussy ahead of its Thursday premiere. (The official opening-night film, “Ismael’s Ghosts,” is not in competition.)

Sight unseen, Zvyagintsev’s film figured to be one of the top contenders for this year’s Palme d’Or — the filmmaker is a master of the slow, implacable gut punch, and his last film, “Leviathan,” was widely thought to have been robbed when it only won the screenwriting award at Cannes three years ago.

Like “Leviathan,” “Loveless” is an unsparing portrait of an emotionally, ethically and physically ravaged country. The former film was more openly about politics, telling the story of a mechanic who loses his house, and much more, to the machinations of a corrupt local mayor and the political, legal and religious institutions that underpin the rigged system.

By contrast, “Loveless” goes smaller, though in the end that means it also goes bigger. Its central characters are Boris and Zhenya, a husband and wife at the end of an unhappy marriage; they’re undergoing a bitter divorce, but neither wants to assume custody of their 12-year-old son Aloysha, who is mocked by the self-obsessed (and social-media-obsessed) mother played by Maryana Spivak, and ignored by the feckless father (Alexey Rozin) under his own pressure from a conservative Christian boss and a pregnant girlfriend.

Shortly after Boris and Zhenya agree that they should have aborted their son before he was ever born, Aloysha disappears. What happens next brings out the best in no one onscreen — but it does work to the considerable strengths of Zvyagintsev, who masterfully builds the mystery into a gripping but grueling portrait not of the external corruption in “Leviathan,” but of internal rot.

This is rot that is passed from parent to child until it affects all of society. It is rot that comes from lives of failure and almost (but not completely) obscures the humanity these people once had. You can read “Loveless” as the story of a missing child, and it will break your heart; you can see in it the tale of a country that has lost its soul, and you won’t be wrong.

Using unsettling music by Evgeny Galperin and a brilliantly stark sound design, Zvyagintsev lets no one off the hook in “Loveless” and gives nobody an easy out. Not the characters, who with few exceptions don’t deserve it; and not the audience members, who are probably smart enough not to look to this director for uplift.

A few minutes before Wednesday’s screening began, the news broke that the film had been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. That hardly came as a surprise, given that SPC also distributed “Leviathan,” which landed an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, and won the Golden Globe in that category.

Will the Russian foreign-language submission committee, long beset by charges of conservatism and cronyism, dare to once again submit a Zvyagintsev film, particularly one that deliberately didn’t ask for any government funding? It was a surprise when they chose “Leviathan,” but from this vantage point they absolutely have to give serious consideration to “Loveless.”

So does the Cannes jury. The competition is off to a very good start.