Over five haunting films set in his splintered, morality-challenged Russian homeland, Andrey Zvyagintsev has become a die-hard master at capturing spaces both beautiful and desolate, images of the recognizable world — nature, buildings, people — that also teem with a sense of something absent. That feeling is given explicit purpose in his latest breath-taker, “Loveless,” a quietly harrowing drama about a shattered marriage that finds itself under the spotlight again due to the most awful of circumstances: the sudden disappearance of the couple’s young son.
After his last two dissections of modern Russia — the class-divide tale “Elena” and the corruption saga “Leviathan” — Zvyagintsev takes a more people-focused than system-exposing approach this time to laying bare his country’s psychological fault lines.
Marriages have been used before as prisms of a wider critique. But “Loveless” has a careful alchemy of psychological acuity and societal insight that imbues nearly every shot (a close-up of a face, an epic vista, a tension-filled pan) with a gathering insight into the ripple effects of turning private miseries into petty wars.
A wintry tableau of snow-covered woods opens the film before it imperceptibly shifts to autumn as we shadow 12-year-old Alexey (Matvey Novikov) as he makes his way home from school along a tree-lined river. Moviegoers familiar with Zvyagintsev’s oeuvre might be reminded of the director’s debut film, “The Return,” which chronicled a boy’s coming of age across a variety of unforgiving landscapes.
The eerie calm is interrupted, though, by what awaits Alexey in the high-rise apartment where he lives: coarse sniping between his viper-tongued mother Zhenya (a glamorously unpleasant Maryana Spivak) and exasperated father Boris (Aleksey Rozin, exquisitely forlorn). The divorcing pair’s corrosive insults are a poisonous cloud of hate, one that doesn’t spare the son they consider as much of a burden as each other.
In a devastating camera reveal, Zhenya flings a door shut behind her after a bathroom break like a fighter returning to battle, only to show Alexey hidden behind it in darkness, silently weeping over all he’s heard.
We then get extended glimpses into Zhenya’s and Boris’s separate lives, which makes it painfully clear how their need to escape their marriage conveniently leaves out any consideration of Alexey. Boris, employed in sales at a large business, lives in fear the breakup will get him canned by his ultra-Christian boss. His new girlfriend Masha (a perfectly cast Marina Vasilyeva) is his ex’s opposite: devoted, insecure, affectionate. She’s also pregnant and ready for domestic bliss, a sign that Boris sees the rapid starting of a new family as the most convenient way of erasing a broken earlier model.
Zhenya, meanwhile, a phone-addicted salon manager who cherishes her well-maintained sexiness away from home, treasures the cosmopolitan life that comes with her wealthy, older, divorced new beau Anton (Andris Keishs). He lets her complain about her life, and she feels protected instead of challenged.
But one day, arriving home after an overnight with Anton, Zhenya realizes she hasn’t seen Alexey in over a day. He’s declared missing, triggering a succession of law enforcement types and volunteer searchers, who turn Zhenya’s and Boris’s post-split bliss avoiding each other into the worst kind of reunion: a real-time, dread-filled reminder of their self-consumed negligence.
The search’s main coordinator (Alexey Fateev) has little time for the pair’s bickering, his full-throttle dedication to finding a boy he’s never met — organizing teams, making flyers, scouring buildings both inhabited and abandoned — like a gift neither parent deserves.
Sure, it’s allegorical, the themes of dereliction and venality in Zvyagintsev’s and co-screenwriter Oleg Negin’s scenario squaring nicely with a sense that Russia is hopelessly splintered and tolerant of moral rot. Even the moment in which we’re most sympathetic to the brittle woman Zhenya has become requires sitting through a scene of emotional awfulness with her own terrible, estranged mother. A recluse who distrusts everyone, her own invective — knowing her grandson is missing — illuminates the cycle of psychological abuse and recriminations that led Zhenya into a doomed marriage/motherhood to begin with.
Elsewhere in the film, snatches of news reports can be heard, about media-driven apocalyptic paranoia and war in the Ukraine, and these aural details point to a society ill-equipped to handle crises, but perhaps okay with conflict as a constant so long as it’s elsewhere.
But as bleak as Zvyagintsev’s compositionally powerful imagery can get — decrepit edifices, dark rooms steeped in misery, and lonely, colorless expanses — the sheer force of the search that dominates the second half, even when Zhenya and Boris are at their most vulnerable, suggests a persistent humanity in even the most hardened of worlds.
As “Loveless” lets its pitiful protagonists ebb as marital drama figures snatched from their self-serving personal freedom narrative (in their respective last scenes, both flash-forwards, they look hollowed-out), what lingers is the cumulative might of an all-out quest to find a lost (runaway? kidnapped?) kid. For a movie about a nightmare, that unadorned depiction of a collective good in others seems like, perhaps, a tinge of hope.