Loveless tells the story of an estranged Moscow couple fighting not to take custody of their son. Every encounter is an excuse to blame the other for something. Both have moved on to other partners, with Boris (Aleksey Rozin) repeating his pattern of getting younger women pregnant, while phone-obsessed Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is gripped by the tender affection of her new older lover.
The film is simultaneously distinctive and disappointing, yet it manages to become an intriguing essay on decay.
We don't see much about 12 year old Alexey (Matvey Novikov) because unbeknownst to his warring parents, when the anxious child hears them fighting he responds to the feeling of being undervalued by running away. The remainder of the film follows the process of searching for the missing lad, with some scenes very poignant after the recent high-profile search for Michael Cullen in Belfast.
Loveless is visually distinctive with an unhurried style and long duration shots that follow the action in a room for five minutes or more, long enough for a couple to have a cup of tea, make love, and get up and stare out the window. The soundtrack is atypical, sitting much further forward in the mix than most film's background music. The opening shots - silent scenes of a snowy riverside - are accompanied by a discordant piano which includes the sound of its mechanism and frame. Later a cello takes over as the stressed instrument of choice. The aural dissonance is balanced with a lot of dull grey urbex depressed imagery and locations.
Loveless is disappointing because the slowly told story has no real twists and turns. It's like a scripted ob doc showing off life in a grey Moscow suburb, highlighting the stretched police resource and underwhelming enthusiasm, the disjoints between generations, as well as explaining some of the complexities of a hierarchical society in which religion still has sway over the irreligious. But the near total lack of excitement and energy becomes a huge distraction, particular with a run time of 127 minutes, at least two of which are taken up at the beginning watching the animated logos of the many, many international funders who backed this project after director Andrey Zvyagintsev lost Russian government funding after the production of his 2014 film Leviathan.
However, Loveless eventually offered some intrigue when a pattern emerged from the news reports heard (via subtitle) through Boris' car radio and the TV sets scattered across a few scenes.
Perhaps Loveless is an extended allegory about the decaying state of Russia's relationships with its former siblings that made up the old USSR, perhaps reflecting on the conflict with Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea? (Zhenya's tracksuit top in the final running machine scene and her hard stare into the camera seemed very carefully placed.)
Perhaps it points to the spiritual vacuum that only finds fulfilment in shiny new purchases, new partners and new sex? Perhaps Loveless is an ode to a country over-burdened with cumbersome bureaucracy, decaying fervour and a total lack of verve?
Making a film in Russia that is critical of Russian society is no doubt awkward. But no matter it's inner meaning, Andrey Zvyagintsev's Loveless would have benefited from an injection of plot to make it more thrilling rather than relying on a few false leads and a steady stream of titillation to keep the audience's attention.
Loveless will be screened in the Queen's Film Theatre from Friday 9 - Thursday 15 February.