Is time circular? Film critic Christine Jakobson examines Andrey Zvyagintsev’s latest film Loveless, winner of the Jury Prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, in order to find out whether it is possible to break free from the repetitious prison of pain and violence.
Acclaimed Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s new film Loveless (Nelyubov, 2017), winner of the Jury Prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, is a tale of love and pain, a metaphorical and metaphysical masterpiece of a spiritual catastrophe. Zvyagintsev returns not so much to his previous film Leviathan, which looked at contemporary Russia drenched in alcohol, corruption and anger and won Best Screenplay at the 67th Cannes Film Festival, but to Elena, a film depicting the invincible class barriers within a marriage and their horrifying consequences.
Counting the final days and chores of their marriage, Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) are in the process of divorcing and selling their apartment, a time marked by horrendous resentment and frustration. Hoping to leave behind their vicious arguments and finally embarking into a brighter future, as both have already found a new partner, the one person ignored in this setup is their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) – at least until he disappears.
Loveless opens with an intense musical composition overwhelming to the senses and a depiction of a tree, which forms a multilayered and complex metaphor for the entire film to come, as everything is contained within this instance of nature’s microcosm. The film ends as it begins, returning back to its Ursprung, having gone full circle, it contains within its structure the repetitious nature of hopes, hate and history or a Nietzschean idea of the eternal recurrence of the same, thereby foreshadowing all of times to come - whether on an individual or collective level - and reflecting that which has already preceded.
The opening soundscape is accompanied by shots following the tree’s branches, the tender ends building on hundreds of years of growth and destruction. Observing the tree’s roots, instead of seeing a solid foundation upon which these branches depend, all that exists are roots broken off, frozen, abandoned, unloved and un-nurtured. A red and white barricade tape, usually found at construction sides to warn off people, loops around the roots and is picked up by Alyosha, who throws it up in the air, where it gets stuck in the tree’s branches.
This visual metaphor is later verbalized through Zhenya’s confessional monologue about herself, her mother, her son, her husband and life, which cuts deep and cuts sharp, exposing painful wounds years in the making. In fact, one of the most striking insights is the underlying notion that the pain she expresses has been passed on from one generation to the next, making visible the all too familiar chain of destructive behavior within the lineage of a family - the child subjected to forces of violence, called love. Zhenya’s own mother doesn’t appear to have anything other than vile and resentment for her daughter, using any possible moment to insult and humiliate her. But the film challenges the idea that this relationship can be seen or should be understood in isolation, as it appears to be just one knot in a larger web, suggesting that Zhenya’s mother has experienced a similar relationship to her mother and/or father, them to their parents and so on - an experience Zhenya ultimately passes on to her son, due to her inability to relate to his pain, consequently leading to her failure to realize that he has disappeared.
In this system’s ancient alchemy, we seem to be destroying ourselves and others with one hand, while calling it love with the other. While love let’s the other be, violence retrains the other’s freedom without concern for the other’s independent existence. In this state of violence masquerading as love, the question becomes whether love is possible and whether freedom from this violence is attainable. Might the only hope there remains for a beginning of an honest and loving relationship be the initial experience of its absence?
The question ‘Do you really love me?’ is in fact a red threat throughout the film, the expression of a dire need for security and affirmation returning time and again, pointing towards a fundamental absence of stability and a continuous doubt of sincerity. Zvyagintsev’s DP Mikhail Krichman’s frequent use of zooms and dolly shots visually highlights the narrative’s digging for deeper meaning and structural problems, fiercely confronting, questioning and penetrating the world’s and our own surface to expose a shared human experience set against a contemporary landscape split between narcissism and a search for acceptance. And just as Alyosha is hiding behind closed doors, unable to intervene and fully comprehend, so are we made passive witnesses to this modern tragedy, which feels so raw, private, honest and genuine that we too are left with a silent scream of seeing the uncomfortable truth of our fragmented and hurt selves.
External reality pointing toward a space outside the internal misery of this nucleus setup is set against the superficial and constant background of social media and seeps in through the radio, announcing the impeding possibility of an apocalypse on the 21 December 2012 and commenting on the progression of the war in the Ukraine. Both events, whether imaginary or real, echo this couple’s personal circumstances: self-inflict, not fully understood or grounded in reality, a conspiracy against each other and a war to be fought with any means available, devastating in its consequences.
Even though Zvyagintsev has already established his seat among the ranks of acclaimed art-house directors, particularly with his two previous films Leviathan and Elena, Loveless has fully cemented his place not only within contemporary cinema, but invites for comparisons with the greatest directors of cinema’s history. Loveless’ initial phase of portraying a failed marriage, its sensibility and cruelty, is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. And while Alyosha’s disappearance appears to haunt the film more than it does his parents, who are nearly too self-obsessed with their own problems and what his disappearance means to them than his actual absence, invites to draw a comparison with Michelangelo Antonioni’s superb L’Avventura. Yet it would be a mistake to deny or undermine Zvyagintsev’s more poetic, mystical and spiritual side, as the scene of the abandoned warehouse seems to directly reference or pay homage to Andrey Tarkovsky’s Stalker.
It has been argued that Zvyagintsev’s film primarily depicts and dissects life within contemporary Russia, and aside from moments of undeniable specificity, Loveless couldn’t be reduced to being only that and would thereby miss Zvyagintsev’s ability to transcend his specific space-time continuum, offering a diagnosis of existence beyond the here and now (wherever and whenever this might be). Zvyagintsev’s dazzlingly and intense film has simultaneously an analytic precision and a poetic serenity, it is unnerving and brutally honest, making visible an inner and outer world filled with pain, disappointment and ridden with deep-seated insecurities which numb the mind and heart – an existence uprooted and in search of anything that can, at least momentarily, give a sense of meaning. Yet this search has been around for much longer thanZvyagintsev’s oeuvre and the narratives contained within it, as it speaks to and echoes the timeless nature of existence, as his films illustrate how the eternal manifests itself in the temporal.
If one were to judge human evolution from the point of view of knowledge of the external world, it appears undeniable that progress has been made in many respects. However, if one were to apply the same question to the evolution of our internal being and the oneness, or absence thereof, we have with other people, both close and far, one would most likely come to a very different conclusion – observing the recurrence of the same alienated, destructive and self-devouring behavior.
If the whole film can be found within it’s opening sequence, so it does in its final scenes, returning to the same tree, revisiting the white note after a crushing crescendo of music, foreshadowing not only the film, but maybe our own trajectory of existence that if we do not find ways to admit, accept and transcend the violence that has been done to us and the violence we inflict on ourselves, thereby realize that we are as deeply afraid to life and to love as we are to die, existence will ultimately or eventually culminating in T. S. Eliot’s words in The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.