When is a bad marriage something more than a bad marriage? The answer: When Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena) writes and directs a movie about it and turns the result into a mesmerizing meditation on the state of Russia today. Loveless is not an overtly political film, but it resonates with unease about the failure of government to serve the neediest (a fault not limited to Russia) and citizens too selfish to see past their own selfies (also not limited to Russia).
The time is 2012, and Putin is determined to annex Crimea. Somewhere in Moscow, a husband and wife are living out the last stages of their relationship. Beauty-shop owner Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), defined by the shabby business suit he wears, just want their divorce already. That means selling their apartment so she can move on with the older, wealthy Anton (Andris Keishs) and he can move in with his pregnant girlfriend Masha (Marina Vasilyeva). Favoring Putinesque orthodoxy, Boris’s employers frown on divorce and demand at least the appearance of a familial happiness.
And then there’s Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), the couple’s 12-year-old son and a kid that both of his parents wish didn’t exist. (The father has not even told his mistress that he has a son.) The boy spends a lot of time crying quietly to himself. Until suddenly, his parents can’t hear or see him anymore: His school reports that the loveless child is missing. The cops can’t help, what with budget constraints and all. A volunteer service organizes a search around abandoned buildings and forest wastelands and a Russia that has abandoned its heart. Through false leads and misdirection, a portrait emerges of a country rotting away at its very core.
Aside from Alyosha, there’s no one to root for here, and Zvyagintsev paints the bleakest of picture. But his filmmaking has a driving force that hurtles you along, and like his 2014 masterpiece Leviathan, this micro-focused drama allows the director to turn the story of one family into an X-ray of a nation’s bruised soul. Loveless is nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film. It means to shake you. And it does.