“Loveless”, a foreign Oscar nominee from Russia, is an absorbing drama about the disappearance of a child. I admit, the subject matter never fails to grab me (I’ll never forget the townspeople’s search for the missing child in D.H. Lawrence’s Women In Love). And yet, while the treatment is as painfully intense as you might expect, the overall effect is not depressing. Director and co-writer (with Oleg Negin) Andrey Zvyagintsev has a coherent vision of human nature that allows for our best human qualities – compassion, generosity, diligence – to co-exist with, if not exactly overcome, our ugliest impulses.
We first see a winter scene in Moscow, a pond surrounded by trees. A twelve-year old boy, Alexey, played by Matvey Novikov, walks by the pond on his way home from school. We see him find a long, colored streamer, which he takes with him. This object will reappear at the end of the film.
We next see Alexey looking out his bedroom window at children playing in the snow. His mother, Zhenya, played by Maryana Spivak, is tall and athletic. Her face is darkened by anger and disappointment, which is directed at Alexey and her husband, Boris, played by Aleksey Rozin. The couple are getting divorced, but neither seems to want to care for Alexey. In repeated scenes, Zhenya berates and humiliates Boris, who responds in kind. After one such occasion, they discover that Alexey has disappeared.
The rest of the film is their search for him. Those “ugly impulses” I mentioned before are rife in most of the people that the couple know. Residents of Moscow, they are cynical, driven to acquire money, and bitterly disappointed. Zhenya’s mother, who professes no love for her or for Alexey or his father, thinks the search for Alexey is really Zhenya’s scheme to steal her house from her. At work, both Zhenya and Boris talk with colleagues who are just as dispirited. Zhenya, however, does enjoy good gossip at the salon she works in.
Each has a new lover, and sexual pleasure with them is a welcome relief. Boris’ girlfriend, now pregnant, feels rejected when Boris is away, even when searching for his son. Zhenya’s lover, older and prosperous, is divorced and has an adult daughter who lives far away.
While the search for Alexey maintains suspense, the digressions with the minor characters slacken the film somewhat. They are well-cast and individualized, but unpleasant to be around. But Zvyagintsev next does something unusual. Since the police – hopelessly understaffed – will never do a proper search, the couple are directed to a group of volunteers who specialize in missing children, especially runaway boys. While not overtly stated, the relentlessly depressing environment seems to drive a number of children to escape from their families. The volunteers, self-taught and disciplined, have developed proven techniques that often reunite the families. Except, of course, when the child is no longer alive.
The introduction of these volunteers has the surprising effect of adding hope into a story that is almost unbearably bleak. The volunteers are a few dozen adult men and women, without uniforms except for the bright orange vests that they wear on group patrols. From a distance, we see them move slowly through the forest. One of them – identified only as “Fox 1” – screams out Alexey’s name three times. Hearing no response, and finding nothing, they regroup at another location. At the forest, Boris asks why they don’t search the pond. He is told that that they don’t look for bodies; it is a job for the police.
Their leader is tall, in his late thirties and calmly focused on the mission. He sternly berates Alexey’s parents when they bicker, but without judgment. He shows quiet sensitivity, but not sympathy. As with his colleagues, we learn nothing of his personal life. But the members of the group seem aware, without saying so, that their country is in chaos, without a unifying purpose, and that this will inevitably lead to troubled families.
Zvyagintsev wants to show that this spiritual emptiness may not be obvious. Both of the pregnant women in the film seem energized and hopeful. In a luxury restaurant, a beautiful woman coyly flirts with an unseen man, then returns to her unsuspecting companion, stroking his hair. Still, by intercutting these scenes with the grimness of the search, we sense an enervating anxiety underneath. And, as in Michael Haneke’s recent “Happy End”, the near constant use of cellphones only emphasizes how socially isolating it is.
A scene of the group searching an abandoned Soviet building, where Alexey and some schoolmates sometimes played, powerfully dominates the film. It is huge, crumbling and fearsome. And yet, while it is only a relic of the bygone Soviet era, it also seems to symbolize the wreckage that Russia has since become. A late scene of Zhenya exercising on a treadmill in her lover’s apartment is anything but subtle. Wearing a track suit with her country’s name in huge letters, she is a vision of despair and guilt.
That guilt is piercingly expressed in a late scene where she is summoned with Boris to the morgue to view the body of an unidentified boy. It is the emotional climax – or anti-climax – of a film that refuses to answer many of the questions it raises.
Some might argue that Zvyagintsev has lost hope for his country, that his vision is too bleak to find any. But, for me, what lingers is the sight of those nameless, relentless volunteers, sifting through the rubble to find the truth. Perhaps Zvyagintsev sees them as the foundation for Russia’s future, patiently waiting for the current crisis to run its course.