"Nelyubov" ("Loveless") starts as a psychological movie about a divorcing couple, then evolves into a thriller after their child disappears, focusing on the search. Yet overall it is a critical view on modern society, notably Russian.
*** WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS ***
The tone is pessimistic. The story focuses on a few individuals, however news heard on the radio or TV are depressing: the end of the world, corruption, war (Ukraine). Characters are confronted to a harsh environment: at work, bosses impose their arbitrary views to employees (no divorce, religion); the police cannot assist to find a missing child; missing children are commonplace.
The main victims of society are children. They are not desired: Zhenya wishes she had aborted; none of the parents want to keep Alyosha; we understand Boris' girlfriend got pregnant "by accident". They are not taken care of: Zhenya did not have any milk for Alyosha when he was a baby (a revealing metaphor); Zhenya and Boris only realise after two days that their son is missing; at the end, Boris removes the crying baby instead of taking care of him.
All this is a repetition of the past: Zhenya was not desired by her mother either and now has harsh contacts with her. Hence we feel that eventually children will grow up to be like their parents, forever perpetuating the lack of love within families. This perpetuation is emphasised by similar shots at the beginning and end of the movie: empty snowy landscapes with the same tense music.
The "loveless" context spreads to all relationships: Zhenya tells Anton she loves him but he does not answer; at the restaurant, a young lady easily gives her mobile number to a complete stranger before sitting down with her date. People only care about themselves: what matter most is wealth (Zhenya's comment about Anton), appearance (the beauty parlour) and social media (various selfies). Symbolically, when the coordinator questions Alyosha's friend at school, the blackboard in the background shows cold mathematical formulas instead of words or drawings (detail emphasised afterwards when the teacher erases the board).
The atmosphere is not only bleak: it deteriorates progressively, noticeably after Alyosha's disappearance. This evolution is illustrated in different ways:
1. SITUATIONS. At the beginning, Zhenya and Boris are separating cruelly, but are hoping for a fresh start in new relationships. These are shown in parallel, always in the same two apartments, highlighting their similarities and hence developing a systemic view on couples. First, the vision seems positive: the two new couples each have dialogues and a long erotic scene. However, couples then slowly drift apart: dialogues are reduced, doubts about the relationship emerge, there are no erotic or tender scenes any more. Finally, couples are physically separated despite being in the same home: Anton watches TV while Zhenya practices on the balcony; Boris watches TV while his girlfriend talks to her mother in the kitchen.
2. IMAGE. To start with, shots highlight the tension between Zhenya and Boris, living together unwillingly: the camera uses long focals (sharp foregrounds, blurred backgrounds); frames are saturated (Boris in the crowded elevator, Zhenya in the crowded metro, close shots on the tray at the canteen, etc.). After Alyosha disappears, characters seem lost among high buildings, deserted places and endless forests. They increasingly bump against elements: cold and wet weather, metal fences (twice), large river, gigantic radar in the middle of the forest. Noises are menacing: barking dogs, traffic, planes, etc.
3. PLACES. After Alyosha disappears, cosy apartments are replaced by Zhenya's mother's neglected house, then a huge derelict building, then a dreadful mortuary. The sequence in the derelict building is pivotal: it used to be a pleasant place of gathering (room with many seats), music (standing piano) and enjoyment (beautiful art deco bar); all is now destroyed. The schoolyard, where children ran at the very beginning of the movie, is now empty, just filled with snow. At the very end, Alyosha's bedroom is torn down and completely reworked: the little that remained of the boy's soul is definitely gone.
4. ALYOSHA. The boy actually is the main role: he opens the movie and is very present in the first part; after he disappears the entire plot revolves around his search. Yet we never see him again: this vacuum becomes the icon of a soulless society. The only elements that eventually remain from him are the posters with his picture, scattered in empty places, and the tape he threw into the tree at the beginning: two derisory reminders of his existence. (Side note: the tape is striped red-and-white for safety, announcing the forthcoming tragedy.)
The overall message is: we could have built a convivial society, but instead brought void and selfishness. Economic conditions can only partly be blamed since characters belong to middle or upper class. At the end, Zhenya is running on a machine, outside in winter, wearing a training suit proudly showing "RUSSIA": this cold society seems to be moving, but it is standing still, going nowhere. Meanwhile, Anton and Boris are watching propagandist news on TV. The allegory could hardly be more explicit: it is common knowledge that Zvyagintsev is very critical towards his country in general and the present government in particular.
That said, "Nelyubov" has a few downsides. First, it is almost too skillful: messages and codes ooze from every situation, with minutely crafted images. Also, the vision is hopeless: nobody is truly positive, except maybe Alyosha who precisely disappears and the volunteers who mostly remain anonymous (the exception being the coordinator, who is nevertheless severe). Last, characters are somewhat stereotyped: to summarise, women are hysterical and men autistic. All these elements render the movie relatively one-sided, almost cynical: everything is thrown overboard.
Nonetheless, "Nelyubov" remains an aesthetically impressive movie, to the extent that it never feels long despite its minimal action. Zvyagintsev again demonstrates he now is one of the leading Russian directors. His mastery seems to increase with every movie.
Still living under the same roof, the Moscow couple of Boris and Zhenya is in the terrible final stages of a bitter divorce. Under those circumstances, as both have already found new partners, the insults pour down like rain in this toxic familial battle zone, always pivoting around the irresolvable and urgent matter of Alyosha's custody, their 12-year-old only son. Unheard, unloved, and above all, unwanted, the introverted and unhappy boy feels that he is an intolerable burden, however, what his parents don't know is that he can hear every single word. As a result, when Boris and Zhenya finally realize that Alyosha has been missing for nearly two days, it is already too late. But is this a simple case of a runaway teenager?
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March 05, 2018 at 01:23 AM