I'll say this for Loveless, the spare and gut-wrenching Russian nominee for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2018 Oscars: It lives up to its title.
This missing-child drama, which opens Friday at the Cedar Lee, is absolutely as loveless as it gets. In fact I defy anyone to name a film which features less love. There is no love to be found, for example, between the divorcing couple Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rosin), whose bitter shouting match leads to the bolting of their son Alexey (Matvey Novikov). The central thrust of that argument — indelibly performed, let the record show — is that neither parent wants custody of their son. Boris is preoccupied with the ramifications at his job, where his boss is a staunch family-first Orthodox Christian. Zhenya regards Alexey as little more than evidence of her wasted life with Boris, her ruined youth. The next morning, as a crying Alexey struggles to finish a bowl of cereal through his tears, she mindlessly thumbs her social media feeds.
Zhenya and Boris both have lovers, but there is no evident love in the lovemaking. Both of these relationships slowly reveal themselves to be as empty and fraught as the marriage being fled.
There is certainly no love, nor has there been for quite some time, between Zhenya and her mother, an angry, impoverished country woman — a kind of Russian hillbilly. When Boris, Zhenya and a volunteer who's helping track down Alexey venture to the mother's house, she unleashes a tirade of hate and cruel judgement upon her daughter.
The bulk of this two-hour laugh-fest chronicles the search for Alexey, and Russia has never looked harsher nor more hopeless. Director Andrey Zvyagintzev, who made Leviathan in 2014, is a master of mood. The dreary landscapes and shadowy interiors are a mirror of the characters' (and perhaps the nation's?) anguish and misery. The schoolhouse, the apartment complex, the abandoned building in the woods: In Zvyagintsev's hands, these look no less deathly than the morgue.