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Review: Lost boy and bad parents in Oscar-nominated Loveless

PUBLISHED: 10:05 15 February 2018

Matvey Novikov as Alexey in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

Matvey Novikov as Alexey in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

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Parenthood and shattered childhood dreams are also key motifs of Russian film-maker Andrey Zvyagintsev's follow-up to Oscar winning Leviathan , which has been nominated as Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards.

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film DistributionMaryana Spivak as Zhenya in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

Loveless (15)

****

Loveless, but there’s plenty of bile and hate and pain to fill in the space where the love should be.

The opening shots are of a wintery woodland. Snow lies on the ground and on the branches of the tree. The water in the stream hasn’t frozen yet, which is about the only let up this film offers.

Matvey Novikov as Alexey in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film DistributionMatvey Novikov as Alexey in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

Andrey Zvyagintsev’s follow up to his Oscar winning Leviathan could be his take on Antonioni’s L’Avventura, a great search for something and someone that has been lost. But it is also a 21st century, Russian version of Kramer Vs Kramer.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexei Rozin) are in the middle of a hateful divorce. They argue over everything, including who will get custody of their only child, Alexey (Matvey Novikov) – both of them are desperate to foist him off on the other.

Loveless is a stunning film, but one whose brilliance is hard to pin down. There’s nothing in the story that hasn’t been seen before. It’s slanging matches between the two of them, interspersed with gentler scenes with their new loves.

The film’s visuals are impressive but it’s not the kind of sumptuous beauty that looks like it took all day to shoot. There are no showy, enormously complicated tracking shots. But always there is the feeling that the camera is framing precisely the right image, that its movements are just right, and that what is being shown is exactly what we need to be shown.

Aleksey Rozin as Boris in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film DistributionAleksey Rozin as Boris in Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

This film conveys so much with comparatively little: about the characters, about life in Russia, about how misery is passed down through the generations. If this were a classic Russian novel it would be over 700 pages long, small type, and take months to read. In the cinema, you get all that weight in just over two hours, and you don’t have to lift a finger.

Zvyagintsev was initially praised in the west as a spiritual successor to Tarkovsky but he’s developed into something quite different.

He is known for making bleak epics like The Return, The Banishment or Leviathan but this is more like his smaller character study, Elena. It’s all about distance, and five films into his career I think he now knows exactly where he needs to be. Too close and its melodrama, too far away and it’s cold and indifferent. He has a middle distance that lets you feel all the pain, excruciatingly so, but keeps you detached enough that you can see the wider themes.

It’s also a style that doesn’t bang the drum for how clever it’s being, but is not so delicate that you don’t notice it. For example, there’s a bit of foreshadowing going on its opening scenes. It’s very subtle and slight, but I bet 90% of viewers pick up that this is going to mean something later.

A scene from Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film DistributionA scene from Loveless. Photo: Altitude Film Distribution

Zvyagintsev is a mighty filmmaker, and not one you’d want to get on the wrong side of. Boris works at a company run by a hardline Christian who doesn’t employ anyone who is divorced, and I suspect Zvyagintsev is similarly unforgiving. It’s not that he hates his characters (not as much as they hate each other), but the degree to which he finds them wanting is so vast he may as well.

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