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Review: "Loveless"

Some people should never get married. Likewise, some people should never become parents. Crudely enough, the protagonists of Andrey Zvyagintsev's new film Loveless fit both of those descriptions. The Leviathan helmer returns with another bleak and unflinchingly honest portrayal of family dysfunction and social politics. Loveless is also a commentary on modern Moscow. Zvyagintsev uses the car radio as the film's cultural master of ceremonies, informing the audience of the state of Russia, the political climate and expected societal norms. In fact, the only other time the car radio isn't used for exposition, is when a character turns it into an aural weapon to antagonize another character, by blaring loud metal rock during an inappropriate time. The coal-hearted characters in Loveless listen to the radio, but hardly to each other.

Early in the film we learn that Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are in the final steps of finalizing their divorce. While Zhenya is showing their high rise condo to potential buyers (a young couple who are expecting), they come across her twelve-year-old son Alyosha's (Matvey Novikov) room. Zhenya is cold with him and even hits him upside the head for not immediately greeting the young couple. We sense a strong disconnect between mother and son; this isn't a parent's warmth or a child's elation. Later that day, Boris comes home and he and Zhenya exchange some harsh words. It's not so much that the love is lost between them -- it becomes glaringly obvious that the couple only married because Zhenya was pregnant with Aloysha at a young age. They've been putting up the facade of a functioning family, but they don't want each other, let alone their kid.

But that's just the start of things. Boris impregnated a much younger girl and spends most of his nights sleeping at her place. The young girl still lives with her mom. And Zhenya, although she manages her own salon and is a strikingly attractive woman, is quietly falling apart. She distracts herself with her new boyfriend, a much older gentlemen with a postmodern-deco apartment but maybe her attraction to him is connected to her own at arms length upbringing. In a fascinating and unnerving scene later in the film, we meet Zhenya's mother, a spiteful woman who lives outside Moscow in a walled-up home. Everything we need to know about Zhenya's identity is trapped in those walls.

The plot wheels of Loveless really start to turn once Aloysha goes missing. Of course, in their selfish aloofness, it takes Zhenya and Boris more than a day to notice that their child is missing. The cops are of little help, but fortunately a volunteer group that searches for missing persons comes to their aid. Zvyagintsev and his cinematographer Mikhail Krichman create some gorgeously eerie imagery as the search party ventures through abandoned buildings and the unforgiving forest. Loveless is fascinating because we care so much about the safety of the kid but are forced to endure all the uncertainty of the search with protagonists (Zhenya and Boris) we very much don't approve of.

The film is nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar at this Sunday's Academy Awards. It doesn't offer any easy exits or answers and some viewers might find it more frustrating than rewarding. I do think that Zvyagintsev aims to unnerve us -- but with visual artistry and subtle introspection, and he succeeds in that. The final shot of the film is filled with muted desperation. I also want to point out that newcomer Novikov does some really impressive acting as the broken Aloysha. In only a few early scenes, we feel his devastation and his sadness hangs over the rest of the film like a dark cloud, following the characters wherever they go. He haunts our memories too.