We tend to think of the family as a space for love and the child as representative of the new. Loveless exposes families to be, instead, havens of hatred and the child as nothing but a fresh container for an ancient history of gloom. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), soon to be divorced but still living under the same roof, repeat the same emotional indifference that was passed on to them by their parents. But their son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), stages an intervention in their genealogical tree of horrors by fleeing their home. No one seems to have ever wanted him—and it’s only when he goes missing that he seems to merit parental attention. Not that he ceases to be a nuisance ready to be shipped to a boarding school followed by a military career, which is what Zhenya desires, but because now the adults have to respond to societal demands of his whereabouts.
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s film suggests that when, and perhaps only when, the child vacates his place in the family, like a ghost, does the child manage to insert himself into the history of the family in an authentic way. And perhaps stop the transmission of lovelessness. It’s as if the real inheritance that families can count on is the frustration produced by failed relationships of previous generations, which keeps repeating itself at every domestic iteration. Boris has yet to close the book on his botched marriage and his new lover is already pregnant with his baby (as well as wounded by his coldness). It also becomes obvious that Zhenya is re-enacting with Alyosha the same kind of nastiness she experienced with her own mother as a child.
The child in Loveless is only physically present in a few scenes. Yet it’s impossible to forget, or recover from, the look of terror on his face as he listens to his parents discuss their plans for him behind a bathroom door. In a sense, little does it matter if Alyosha is found dead or alive. Mother and father have killed their son over and over again—emotionally, symbolically, and in their dreams—long before he ever becomes a corpse.
Zvyagintsev captures domestic violence, or rather, captures the violence in the domestic, in cold-blooded fashion. He doesn’t pity the child, nor does he vilify the parents. He doesn’t ask us to identify with or against anyone. He doesn’t allow us to regard the tragedies of domestic life, the selfishness of parental labor, as some kind of Russian exclusivity. The setup feels unnervingly familiar from the very beginning, down to the parents’ penchant for staring at their cellphones more often than each other. Think of the film as Scenes from a Marriage for the age of social media, in which the woman doesn’t forgive and beg for the man to stay after a betrayal. She doesn’t recoil into interiority and pain. She takes revenge, she humiliates, she finds her own pleasure elsewhere—all while scrolling down her Instagram feed.
The feeling of being unhappily married, or being married at all, has rarely been rendered visible in a more astute way than when Zhenya and Boris are forced to drive together to her estranged mother’s house looking for their son. Trapped in inside a moving vehicle, she tries to smoke a cigarette in silence. Meanwhile, he blasts heavy metal music, refusing to roll down the window despite her demands. They’re both headed to a place they dislike, and it will be a very long drive. There are no possible positive outcomes for their excursion. In the end, even the potential death of a child feels like a repetition—or a mere literalization. And all that’s left to do is scream.
The BFI London Film Festival runs from October 4—15.