An Ashen World and Its Casualties; On the Film Loveless
by Mari A. Gomez
The title highlights the most profound line in the film. A woman confesses her profound distaste and repulsion for her husband and her own son. She is sickened, she says, by the sight of the boy. She has never loved her husband or anyone. Her confession is sincere, but the brutality of it is so unnerving that you shift uncomfortably in your chair. Her new lover listens and tells her that one cannot live in a state of lovelessness. This much is obvious, but it presents with simplistic accuracy the crux of the film: people do and they carry on this way, and it amplifies, drags on, plants its roots and grows. Most importantly of all: it takes casualties. The main casualty here aside from its perpetrators —a hardened and resent-ridden couple— is a twelve year old boy.
By the end of the film this lovelessness has expanded and infected those that have come in close contact with the afflicted. If one does not transcend the void, it permeates everything like an invisible disease planted in the soul until it infuses the bloodstream and turns the world to ash.
The film, by Russian director Andrey Zvyaginstev, revolves around a couple embroiled in a scornful separation —venomous with loathing, foaming at the mouth— and in the middle of it all, their son goes missing.
The film’s cinematography sets the mood: dominated with grays, dreary winter scenes, dilapidated colors, and joyless expressions. It is an uncomfortable film because it shows what human beings can become. It shows that while the human spirit is unbreakable in many circumstances, it can also die and rot within the body. This spiritual death is complex, but even in its death rattle it thrashes within trying to survive.
The hatred between Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and her soon to be divorced husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin) is profound and permeates every scene. It’s not just an ugly divorce, it’s one completely devoid of all compassion or a semblance of sympathy for the other. A disturbing scene occurs when they discuss what is going to happen to their child as they go their separate ways. They fight over who will have to carry the burden. They might as well have been talking about a cat or a stereo, for they speak of him as a nuisance that neither of them cares to contend with. Neither parent seems to have the slightest affection towards their son. The boy knows this; he listens in on the conversation, crying quietly.
Where does this type of lifelessness come from? You get a glimpse in a scene with Zhenya’s mother, as they are looking for the boy. We see the roots. The interaction with Zhenya’s mother shows just how this type of lovelessness is passed on, how it is not often born in a vacuum, but rather a reaction that snowballs in the soul.
Zhenya and Boris’ son Alyosha (Matvery Nobikov) is the fulcrum on which the rest of the story balances. It is his absence that seeps into the film as you’re watching. It is his absence that is triumphant in the end as the bigger tragedy.
There is one source of hope in the film that stands out against the dreary gray landscapes, the fascistic work environment, the resentment, the somewhat detached sex scenes, war and destruction (portrayed by background news reports and radio broadcasts), and that is the volunteer force that helps to look for the boy.
When Zhenya calls the police it’s clear that the government has no real interest in finding lost children and that bureaucracy loses its humanity rather quickly.
Almost immediately the volunteer group mobilizes and begins working to find the boy. They are professional, stoic, but relentless in their belief of the value of Alyosha’s life- more so than his parents. It is their efforts and their attention to detail that really contrasts the parents’ selfishness. Even in the throes of the search the parents bicker, expressing their disdain for each other. The volunteer force goes out in the biting cold, they yell his name, they investigate. Boris, the father, goes quietly (and somewhat halfheartedly) along with the search team into the gray woods and the abandoned houses and buildings as if he was being taken to the underworld that he participated in creating.
The final scenes are indicative of the domino effect of a loveless life and how the weight of it falls on those who stand nearby.
One cannot live without love. A state of lovelessness will make monsters of men. It turns the world gray and dull and buries people alive. The film captures this with gutwrenching honesty.
Love always (not necessarily romantic love, but a love of life) or you will end up perpetually searching for answers in the empty abandoned buildings of resentment, fear, hate, and regret. Don’t let it infect you. Transcend because it’s not that far a travel to the underworld. Choose the way of grace, lest you live the rest of your days dead inside your skin.