Loveless starts out with a long panning scene of snow falling on trees and a river. Soon that image of cold lifelessness is transferred inside a suburban apartment where a couple are arguing about the terms of their impending divorce, and who will take their 12 year-old son. Chillingly, neither want to be responsible for the boy. As the argument progresses a door is closed, and the camera stays fixed on what is behind the door – the 12 year-old boy, crumpled in anguish, crying silently as he overhears his parents both trying to disown him.
We discover the father’s main fear is that his religious boss will fire him if he finds out about the divorce, while the mother says she got pregnant by mistake and couldn’t bear to look at her baby when it was born. The couple move through their loveless world glued to their smartphones, barely noticing other people around them. They each have new lovers, but even when they have sex it is a cold and detached form of coupling, like carrying out a yoga routine.
Their 12 year-old goes missing, but they don’t even notice until the second day when the school calls to ask why he has not been coming to classes. They finally call the police, who take down some notes but offer little help, and then contact a group of civic volunteers, who have come to fill a void in contemporary Russia’s inadequate government services. They methodically search the neighborhood, review CCTV tapes, interview the neighbors – this is not the first time they have helped look for runaways. The director, Andrey Zvyagintsev, said in a Q&A after the film that the volunteer movement was founded in Russia in 2010, “as a response to the apathy of the state.”
The apathy has its roots in the citizens who make up the state. When the resentful couple drive out to the boy’s grandmother’s house to see if their son might have taken refuge there, the grandmother is far from sympathetic to the problem. She is angry at the interruption and says that having her daughter was a “mistake” – lovelessness stretching over generations.
Zvyagintsev also made Leviathan, which was nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar in 2015, and offered a similarly bleak view of today’s Russia with unaccountable officials and widespread hopelessness amongst ordinary people. Loveless, Zvyagintsev said, “is filmed in Russia, but it is universal. It is about the selfishness of people and how that can be exploited by populists.” He is careful not to wade into Russia’s domestic politics, but his characters are continually exposed to radio and TV news broadcasts about the situation in Ukraine, from the Russian perspective. The implications are clear. At one point the mother tells her new lover that she never loved her husband. The man replies “Lovelessness. You can’t live like that.”