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Cannes 2017 Review - LOVELESS

loveless cannes review
A divorced man and woman are forced to work together when their son disappears.







Review by John Bennett

Directed by: Andrey Zvyagintsev

Starring: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Novikov

loveless 2017 poster

After a rapid, pulsating melody builds over the austere opening credits of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film, Loveless, the music furiously explodes into a furious, urgent, almost pleading double-time march as the credits dramatically give way to a lyrical travelling shot that glides beneath the dense network of branches of a large snowy tree. It’s an opening that bombards both the senses that films hope to capture; with this intro, Loveless hypnotises the viewer into listening to its ideas about the harm we can do to one another as we try to protect our own sense of dignity. Though Loveless is relentlessly hard to watch, it’s a nearly-perfectly told narrative that abounds with flickers of aesthetic rapture, and it’s a film that you should demand your national distributors, whomever they may be, pick up to disseminate to a theater near you.

After this striking opening, we are introduced to the film’s principal characters rather quickly. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), a young bourgeois divorcĂ©e plans on selling her apartment, where she lives with Aleksey, her 12-year-old son. She has divorced the boy’s father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), after a nasty falling-out, and both are involved with new lovers. Boris’ lover, Masha, is pregnant with his child. We see early on how profoundly unhealthy the relationships between Loveless’s central family are. In a striking, flowing show, Zhenya storms out of her apartment’s bathroom, continuing her loud, cutting berating of Boris. As she slams a door behind her in traversing the apartment, she reveals Aleksey, barely stifling his deep sobs. Not long after this moment, Aleksey vanishes without a trace. Once the parents realise their son is missing, they initiate an investigation that runs parallel to and intersects with various facets of their unhappy lives.


loveless cannes review

With Loveless, Zvyaginstev engages in a sort of art house tradition of creating a mystery while making the resolution of that mystery beside the point of the film (think Green for Danger, L’avventura, Blow-up, Blue Velvet, Graduation). Loveless takes this trope to a new level; what’s new and fascinating is not that the resolution of Loveless’s central mystery is beside the point, but rather that the parents’ indifference towards it is shockingly callous. They seem just as invested in their own personal lives as they do in the fate of their young son.

Indeed, at its heart, Loveless is a commentary on the damage we can inflict on others when we only consider ourselves. As if to give this idea a tangible visual correlative, Zvyaginstev depicts many characters’ monitoring themselves on social media. Young women at a fancy restaurant take carefully orchestrated selfies. Even Zhenya (played fantastically well by Spibak - I hope she will be recognised at Cannes for her work in the film), is seen several times scrolling through Instagram, paying attention to appearances and only appearances. At one point, when the search party looking for the son thinks he may be descending in an elevator of a distant apartment building, the searchers, along with the viewer, are shocked when two drunk phone-wielding young women stumble out, taking pictures of themselves and flirting with the police, as if this sheer superficial self-interest were somehow related to Aleksey’s disappearance itself.


loveless cannes review

But the director pushes the selfishness of his characters even further; in one of the film’s very best scenes, the ex-couple drives out of town to see if Aleksey has fled to Zhenya’s mother’s house. Described by Boris as the new Stalin, Zhenya’s mother relentlessly tears into everyone, including her daughter, not hesitating to cut to the quick at the slightest provocation. For their whole visit, the mother almost never stops spewing vitriol. Once everyone leaves the gruff mother in the silence in which they found her, she quietly buries her face in her hands. This interaction reveals so much. First, we see how Zhenya learned her aggressive style of parenting. Second, we see that this level of cruelty masks a potentially egotistical emotional core. The scene with Zhenya’s mother gets at an idea that’s crucial to understanding the pain of Loveless; these characters pass meanness and dissatisfaction down to the next generation because it’s all they know, or because they’re seeking to avenge their own terrible upbringings, or because they’re simply bad people at heart. Any interpretation can explain a pain - deserved or not - that’s so dolorous that the only defense is to let it scar and harden into something pitiless. This dark complexity is what makes Loveless so great.

The one fault of Loveless, which was also a fault of both Elena and Leviathan, is that it seems slightly listless exactly where it should be at its most intense. Occasionally, the extensive sequences of the search parties looking for Aleksey seem to sag where the rest of the film feels so perfectly realised. But nevertheless, this is a fault that has subsided more and more with each feature Zvyaginstev offers for public consumption. Though Loveless isn’t without its listless moments, like its predecessors, the listlessness has mostly been replaced by a tautness of raw human emotion, buttressed by a consistency of aesthetic mastery.


loveless cannes review

In terms of style, Loveless far surpasses the already-strong work that both Zvyaginstev and screenwriter Oleg Negin have done. Leviathan may have been the more politically ambitious work, but Loveless is the more humanly ambitious one; as if to heighten the pain of the film’s relationships, Zvyaginstev uses a style that can be both heartbreakingly intimate and disconcertingly distant. Medium shots of characters quietly breaking down are just as fascinating as distant shots of silhouettes of characters engaging in mechanical lovemaking - all of which are filmed with great control in patiently roving shots of brooding steely-blue compositions. Negin seems to have improved as well, creating a narrative framework that allows us to learn a little more about these people in each scene.

Loveless frames its narrative with similar images in much the same way that Citizen Kane does - the film’s final image manages to bind its sprawling human tragedy together in a profoundly revelatory way. Zvyaginstev presents to us a final moment that not only makes us feel as though we’ve more deeply understood the film, but that we’ve more deeply understood something fundamental, ugly, and - hopefully - avoidable that exists in the heart of human interactions. It’s far too early in the Cannes Film Festival to pick favourites for the Palme d’Or, but if Loveless were to win, you will hear no objections from me.


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