Loveless (15)

Andrey Zvyagintsev

THERE is a single shot in Loveless that is as devastating as any I’ve seen in a new film in years. It’s of a 12-year-old boy silently screaming, his face full of hurt and despair at the knowledge that he is not wanted by either of his parents.

The moment is effective in part because of the timing – even with this "spoiler", it’s going to catch you out; and partly because we’re already reeling from the savage vitriol tossed between Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), a comfortably-off couple on the brink of divorce, with a mutual, brazen disregard for their son.

And it’s the tipping point of a slow-burn tragedy, through which the masterful Russian writer/director Andrey Zvyagintsev depicts a world where self-interest has become so acute that children are its principal victims.

Zvyagintsev’s films often show families in extremis, not least his last, Leviathan. They are also brilliantly made – tautly written and directed, full of telling observations about modern-day Russian society, and deeply thought-provoking. Though different in form, the effect is similar to the work of one of Zvyagintsev’s heroes, Ingmar Bergman (Loveless was inspired by Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage), namely a rare combination of emotional gloom and exhilarating artistry.

The boy Alyosha is on screen for only a short time: playing alone in the dense, snow-covered woodland near his Moscow high-rise, then indoors, being berated or ignored. He seems a sweet, sad, thoughtful child.

After the decisive row, Zvyagintsev focuses on the adults, revealing the estranged couple in their new relationships – Zhenya with a rich, older man, Boris with a younger woman, who is already carrying his child. The portrait is of two unlikeable people, whose marriage was prompted by an unwanted pregnancy and who have grown to loathe each other with uncharted vehemence.

Zhenya in particular blames her husband for the disappointment of her life; yet what she does with her time is vacuously self-indulgent – pampering, sex, constantly on her phone, life a perpetual selfie. For his part, Boris appears to have maintained his marriage only because his company has a religious boss with a family-centric corporate policy; it’s likely the new family in the making is also a matter of convenience.

They obviously feel it would be better if Alyosha did not exist. So, it’s hardly surprising that it takes them two days – and a phone call from his school – to realise that he’s disappeared.

The police insist on waiting, to give the runaway a couple of weeks to return, so that they don’t get bogged down in unnecessary paperwork; when the state is as uncaring as this, it’s no surprise that individuals fall into emotional apathy. A welcome contrast comes in the form of a team of volunteers, who have made themselves expert in such child searches. Much of the film involves their search for the boy – in high-rises, derelict buildings and the nearby forest.

The parents help, though it’s unclear what drives them – awakened love, guilt or in his case concern for his reputation. Zvyagintsev continues to draw their psychological outlines, memorably with a road trip to Zhenya’s mother, who gives an inkling of where ingrained bitterness and bad parenting have sprung from.

At the same time, the director racks up the tension, as the time ticks by and the temperature drops. One lengthy shot of a teacher cleaning her blackboard seems unnecessary, until it becomes apparent that what we’re really watching is the snow that’s now falling outside her window.

Both literally and metaphorically, this could be the coldest film ever about a child’s disappearance, and therefore the most heart-breaking.