Film still from LovelessLoveless, the latest from Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev, is a beautiful and bleak film. Set in the suburban high-rises of Moscow, divorcing couple, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), loath each other but are continuing to share a roof until they can sell their apartment. Also living with them, and barely tolerated by Zhenya or acknowledged by Boris, their 12-year old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) who seems to represent all their resentments and past misery. Zhenya and Boris each have new partners, and are each happily planning their new lives once they can escape that apartment, until Alyosha just vanishes one day.

Much like Zvyaginstev’s last film Leviathan, Loveless paints a bleak portrait of modern life. While Leviathan seemed to draw particularly on the Russian experience, Loveless has a broader reference. The use of locations and camerawork is masterful, the cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who also worked on Leviathan, finds a stark beauty in the isolation of the characters. The imagery brings to mind the work of painters like Edward Hopper, but with less warmth. Perhaps closer to Australian painter Jeffery Smart who specialised in lifeless, and loveless, urban landscapes.

A film worth seeing, and certainly on a big screen, but it is a difficult and desperate emotional journey. A bit more, but with spoilers, below.

More with spoilers

The narrative of Loveless owes something to Antonioni’s 1960 masterpiece L’Avventura. We start the film following Alyosha as he leaves school. We follow him as he walks home, and listen in to the argument his parents are having about him. In this first part of the film, he appears to be the focal point. And then suddenly, without any warning or insight into how or why, Alyosha is suddenly absent. He has vanished, just as Anna does in L’Avventura, with no explanation or sign left behind. He is just gone.  He stays gone and we never find out what happened. Like Antonioni’s Anna, Alyosha is certainly a central character, but as an absence rather than a presence, spinning the subsequent drama, changing everything, and yet changing very little.

Up until Alyosha vanishes, Zhenya is more engaged with her instagram account than anyone around her. And it is to this disinterested, barely there world she returns at the end, as she sits in her new, luxury apartment, with her new lover. And while Zhenya is hardly a sympathetic character, cold and cruel, we discover this what she learned from her mother, generational neglect and disjunction.

Boris is not blame-free either. His parenting style consists of barely acknowledging Alyosha exists, and certainly not taking any responsibility for him when Zhenya won’t. A style he continues when he is living with his new partner and their new little baby. Boris is also disconnected from the world, but in a different way, only concerned with how he can stop people at work finding out he’s divorced. The very religious company he works for, seemingly strict about ‘family values’, but fine with whatever goes on behind closed doors so long as it looks OK on the outside. It’s OK to get divorced, so long as you get another spouse before anyone notices.

Zvyaginstev’s films are layered with metaphor amongst the carefully framed imagery. The final scene, summarising the subtext of the film. Zhenya runs in place on a treadmill in the snow, then stops an looks straight into the camera. She’s daring the audience to choose something else. To not be like her. To wake up.

Loveless is in cinemas now.