BEIRUT: In the final frame of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s “Loveless,” a young woman on a treadmill is running toward the camera. As she accelerates, her face is averted, her expression diverted. Emblazoned across her tracksuit jacket in Latin characters, “RUSSIA” pitches left and right like a flag in a stiff breeze.
Mundane on its own, this sequence provides an understated coda for Zvyagintsev’s beautifully abrasive film.
Defiant of genre’s easy fixes, “Loveless” has all the elements of melodrama but shuns its pudding sentimentality in favor of emotional provocation.
While following the course of a police procedural, police are all but absent from the narrative and bereavement and criminality blurred. It’s a story peopled by ugly, all too realistic characters whose miserable circumstances help explain both, while redeeming neither.
Zhenya and Boris (Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin) are a 30-something couple who, after a dozen years of marriage, so despise each other that being at home together drives them to fits of mad shouting.
Though still entangled, both have sealed their break by taking lovers.
All that remains of the marriage is to split what money they make from selling their flat and to figure out what to do with Alyosha, “little Alexey,” (Matvei Novikov), their 12-year-old son.
Though he accuses Zhenya of neglecting his boy, Boris – who’s already impregnated his young girlfriend, who still lives with her shrewish mother – sees no advantage in keeping Alexey himself.
Zhenya fumes at the prospect of raising her son any longer.
As she tells her well-off older boyfriend, Anton, she’d stupidly got pregnant with the first man she slept with and only married him because the alternatives terrified her.
“I was repulsed by [Alexey] when he finally came out,” she whispers. “I looked at him and felt I’d made some terrible mistake.”
The subject of Alexey’s future is raised early in “Loveless,” during a caustic late-night screaming match between Boris and Zhenya – one that the boy overhears in tearful silence.
The next morning Zhenya looks up from her mobile long enough to allow Alexey to leave for school without finishing his breakfast.
He’s shown fleeing home but the camera doesn’t follow him, devoting most of its narrative muscle to scrutinizing Zhenya and Boris’ work and social lives, their relations with their respective lovers.
Then, one morning, Alexey’s teacher rings to ask Zhenya why her son hasn’t been at school for the past couple of days.
“Loveless” is the most recent of a cavalcade of Oscar-nominated pictures to jump Beirut’s cinema queue ahead of the March 4 blingfest.
(The only foreign language Oscar contender that won’t get a public screening here before the ceremony is Sebastian Lelio’s “A Fantastic Woman,” recounting the struggle of a trans woman (Daniela Vega) to mourn her lover.)
If the self-absorption of Zvyagintsev’s characters makes his film a bit challenging for audiences, its multiple strengths more than compensate.
The cinematography of Mikhail Krichman enshrouds the sharp edges of the principal characters’ interiors in darkness and claustrophobia. Outside, it basks in tableaux of ruined Soviet-era settlements and military installations squatting in the bush at the edge of their nouveau-riche neighborhoods.
The cast is excellent. Quiet intensity is the default setting for Spivak and Rozin’s depictions of Zhenya and Boris. When they do express emotion, it runs a narrow gamut from passive aggression to unreflective selfishness, feral rage to narcissistic grief.
It’s easy to despise Boris and Zhenya. By the time “Loveless” runs its course, though, only the hypocritical and the sainted will find it impossible to empathize with their selfishness, and their pain.
Credited to Zvyagintsev and Oleg Negin, the writing shares the acidic poignancy of some of the best post-Soviet films to emerge from Central and Eastern Europe.
The story is flensed of delusory cellulite – sentimental cultural tropes like religious belief, familial affection or loyalty – as though the characters have retained the materialist habit of socialism but abandoned any trace of social responsibility in favor of strict egoism.
The filmmakers sketch this pathology without the comic asides that another filmmaker might insert in order to make the art momentarily entertaining.
While bringing depth to the principal characters, the film’s secondary figures – lovers, mothers, policemen, civilian volunteers – also lend documentary context to the proceedings, making “Loveless” something more than a melodrama about the collateral damage of marital collapse.
When the Moscow police are called in to investigate Alexi’s disappearance, the copper takes the parents’ statements and, before telling them how he intends to proceed, assures them that at present they aren’t suspects.
“Sometimes parents kill their kids and try to make it look like they’ve run away,” he explains, then shrugs.
Sounding more like a hands-tied functionary than a policeman, the cop informs the parents he won’t find their son alive.
If they want to get Alexi back, they ought not wait on the derelict police apparatus but contact a volunteer organization created to help find runaways.
Far from Anglophone cinema’s big-hearted camp counselor stereotypes, the volunteer coordinator, Ivan (Alexey Fateev), has a cut-the-crap manner cinema usually ascribes to cops.
It’s Ivan who then escorts Boris and Zhenya through the grim police-free procedural, leading them to one possible explanation for Alexey’s whereabouts.
In the contradiction between the parents’ physical response and their words, and the combustion arising from it, the truth is clear.
“Loveless” is screening exclusively at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil.