By Ray Pride
Andrey Zvyagintsev has aspired obstinately throughout his filmmaking career to become a chronicler of the sick soul of post-Soviet Russia, but more specifically, of the gnawing flaws of his too-human characters caught in sometimes majestic but more often cloacal surroundings. You may know 2003’s “The Return,” and also “Elena” (2011) and more recently, “Leviathan” (2015), the first of his films released under Russia’s draconian laws against controversy and “offense” on stages and in cinemas. Lengthy and melodramatic, it’s a bluntly parsed, pungent, bitter, brackish parable of the kleptocracy of Putin and his circles. Still, in each of his tragic, seething films, Zvyagintsev can’t make a trash heap or a shoddy modern apartment or even the plainest face into anything less than a gorgeous luster-fuck.
In “Loveless,” a gleaming, remorseless masterpiece that I’ve watched with ghoulish joy three times, Zvyagintsev presents a recent Russia as emblematic of a selfish, fallen world, where voices, stilled, catch on the wind, and children, lost, never return. Oleg Negin and Zvyagintsev’s terse screenplay bites and bites back: “You expect to fuck everything up and I’ll clean up after you?” is the most modest of plaint.
Zhenya and Boris are anxious to divorce, tethered only by the nice apartment they’re desperate to sell. Both are already telling new lies to fresh fucks, ready to start new lives, tell more new lies, and discard the obstacle of their neglected twelve-year-old son Alyosha. The plangent dialogue is surpassed by the child’s flat gaze upon a flat, gray, all-but-done city, face round, unblinking like the girl who makes magic at the end of Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.”
Sometimes ill wishes are the ones that come true: Alyosha overhears a brutal argument one dusk. “Next thing you know, he’ll be draft age. Better start getting used to it. Well, what did you think, you could pull the ol’ hump-and-dump, and move on? Shit everywhere and leave the woman to clean it all up? No. I’m moving on too. That’s equality for you.” Alyosha exits. Disappears. As distant as the terrible, ordinary image of a faded, torn months-gone “Missing” flyer on a derelict lamppost.
Zvyagintsev asserts that “Loveless” is a latter-day “Scenes from a Marriage,” with his emotionally cruel, incognizant middle-class couple aping the hurts and hates of Ingmar Bergman’s grueling 1973 masterwork. “Our post-modern era is a post-industrial society inundated by a constant flow of information received by individuals with very little interest in other people, as anything else than a means to an end,” he grumps in a director’s statement. Zvyagintsev’s characters speak of impending apocalypse, embracing the prospect, even, with dour complacence. “Russian orthodox sharia law” is shrugged as a description of daily obstacle. News radio speaks of suicide and alcoholism and Putin.
An extended take of two co-workers conspiring against their employer and gnawing information from each other for future blackmail, sullenly expressing their most sullen thoughts, is a dank gem not unlike the single-take setpieces of Roy Andersson’s black-comic death rattles. The men rush their starchy meal as if confined to an overt prison, rather than behind the bars of an average workday. Their trays of food are visibly disgusting, down to one man looking at the bits he’s picked from his entrée, then continuing to chow without pause.
That stand-by quote from Antonio Gramsci’s “Prison Notebooks” comes in handy here: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”: where are we in this bedraggled noose of a tale? It takes a while for Zvyagintsev to tip his hand that we’re watching a moment other than the eternally moldering now: it’s 2012, indicated by a radio news bulletin that reports outside an Obama-Romney debate, “candidate Jill Stein has been arrested.” (There’s a dry hack of a laugh there after the mid-February release by the Mueller investigation of yet another layer of onionskin about Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.)
But is the future—of Russia, of these broken characters, of America—the never-ending quicksand of a never-ending now, a cacophony of catastrophes, or a brooding glide toward solipsism and shouting and ultimately, silence, whether of isolation or insurmountable death?
Zvyagintsev’s decors and locations and low gray skies and selfish faces and clinically precise framings and lightly lyrical camera movements are where he is at his most profound: he’s an adept of shifting mood via elemental, geometric means that most viewers won’t notice. “’I’ll change; I won’t repeat the mistakes that led me to this disillusionment; I will begin anew,’” is how he verbalizes the fate of his figures. “These are the thoughts of people who blame others for their fiascos. In the end, the only thing you can really change is yourself,” he continues, “Only then will the world around you glow once more; perhaps only a terrible loss can allow this to happen… These days, it’s every man for himself. The only way out of this indifference is to devote oneself to others, even perfect strangers, like the volunteer search coordinator who combs the town looking for the vanished child, with no promise of reward, as if it was his life’s true purpose. This basic task imbues his every action with meaning. It is the only means of fighting dehumanization and the world’s disarray.” “Loveless” exists, and as such, it’s an elegant sign of hope rather than of despair, a wholly cinematic jewel far more shattering than a mere emblem of its maker’s stern words.
“Loveless” opens Friday, March 2 at the Music Box, Landmark Renaissance and Regal Lincolnshire.
Ray Pride is Newcity film critic and a contributing editor of Filmmaker magazine. He is also a photographer: his history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images is forthcoming. Previews on Twitter (twitter.com/chighostsigns) as well as daily photography on Instagram: instagram.com/raypride. Twitter: twitter.com/RayPride. (Photo: Jorge Colombo.)