There are some things that Andrey Zvyagintsev is very good at, such as political commentary. There are some things that Zvyagintsev is awful at, such as portrayals (or occasionally even the inclusion) of women in his films. So, what happens when Zvyagintsev makes a political film with a female lead? You end up with a disappointing monstrosity; one that could have been a masterpiece if a good forty percent was discarded. You end up with Loveless.
Loveless tells the story of a couple, in the process of divorcing, who live with their son in a small Russian town. After hearing them fighting over custody (or lack thereof), the boy leaves the house and doesn’t come back. This leads to the couple on a search to find their son. Ultimately, this film runs across three genres: mystery-thriller, arthouse-philosophical study of love, and borderline propaganda.
The mystery-thriller segment is very much a good film. The stark Russian setting allows for a greater sense of urgency as rescuers look through forests and abandoned buildings in the snow, leading to a desolation that would be beautiful if it wasn’t so disturbed. The love-logy, however, is bad – the film truly lives up to its title in this sense. Love is nonexistent here. People say it over and over again, but it is never visible. While that could work in moderation, the message is so heavy-handed that it frequently borders on cartoonish, as if every character is yet another relative of Cinderella. Not since the 1980s has there been a film where a character so openly shows contempt for their own offspring.
And therein lies the ugly: the borderline propaganda. For some odd reason, Zvyagintsev has decided to take this opportunity to let the world know how awful women truly are. Loveless basically starts with the woman of this divorcing couple screaming at the father about how much of a monster he is, while the father sympathetically and reasonably disagreed with her. The kicker: they were talking about who would take the kid, when neither of them wanted him! Immediately, the father is absolved of any sin for committing the same act as the mother. This critic was wary of writing off the film due to one flawed character, until it became apparent that every female character in this film was horrendous: the screaming hateful mother, the screaming hateful mother’s mother, the clingy annoying new wife, the new wife’s hateful mother – noticing a pattern? The film even goes out of its way to introduce women for moments just to show how bad they are: a woman gives a waiter her number right before meeting up with her boyfriend, a group of women gather together to take a selfie, two drunk girls loudly leaving to go to a party, characters introduced for the sole purpose of being a stand-in for moral corruption before disappearing and playing no further role in the plot.
At the risk of continuing to write a twenty-page paper on this film’s treatment of women, it may be best to just conclude with this: there is a great, if slightly unsatisfying, mystery-thriller hidden here. Unfortunately, it is too bogged down in the sort of regressive politics that were rallied against in Zvyagintsev’s last film. Hopefully, he will find his way back there again.
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Shahbaz Khayambashi: @Shakhayam