Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is not the most content of twelve-year-old boys, and as he returns home from school alone he relishes the peace and quiet of the nearby forest, picking up a police tape used to ring some long-ago crime as he does so. Once back, he has to put up with his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) inviting the estate agent around and two prospective buyers for the apartment they live in, yet another reminder that his parents are divorcing, and leaving him stranded. Zhenya has no real love for the boy, and his father Boris (Aleksey Rozin) has no room for him in his life as he is already starting afresh with his girlfriend Masha (Marina Vasileva), so what can he do?
Loveless begins as a harsh indictment of modern life as seen through the eyes of a child whose parents are barely speaking and at one another's throats when they do, a domestic drama of the kind that we had seen ever since Kramer vs Kramer, to pick an example from the nineteen-seventies. But once we had established where we were in this relationship (or these relationships), director and writer (with Oleg Negin) Andrey Zvyagintsev pulled the rug from under the audience and turned his story into a mystery, one we suspect will not have a conventional solution, if indeed it has one at all. He had already made a name for himself as a heavyweight talent, and this confirmed it.
He had also made a name for himself as a director who wallowed in the miseries of his characters, and this was no exception, though he didn't do it for the sake of it - these were not trite Hollywood weepies - he had a sincere point to make. Early on there is news that the world is about to end, as this is set around one of the seemingly endless doomsday predictions that get into the media and have done since the turn of the millennium, yet here we were asked to contemplate the world had already ended thanks to love having no place in it any more. The problem is that whenever genuine affection blossoms, it is smothered by hate, or worse, indifference to hate, leaving the planet bereft.
We catch Boris and Zhenya at the bitter end of their union, but have no reason to believe that the new affairs they are embarking on will be any different, no matter how well they both get on with the younger Masha and the older Anton (Andris Keiss) respectively, as if there is an entropy at work that saps the life out of any initial passion and everyone is doomed to the resentment that the central couple suffer, if you can still call them a couple. Now the only affirmation of yourself to get you through the day comes from social media, so your friends and family (assuming you can continue to bear them) will be online presences first, since that is where we currently build our confidence with our manufactured personalities, neglecting the real world which is a lot less addictive and positive.
Naturally, the online world is no less toxic, not least thanks to a false image of ourselves and others it propagates: essentially Loveless was telling us the whole global community and interpersonal one were disintegrating thanks to being constructed on lies. Now Ayosha realises this as he loses his innocence, he decides he does not wish to be part of it anymore, and disappears - though the possibility his alienation has landed him in the clutches of someone even worse than the casual malevolence of his parents, someone with murderous intent, is lurking at the back of everyone's minds. And yet, the cruellest aspect of all is that now the child has gone, it's probably for the best considering what his mother had planned for him: now both his parents can move on with their lives, never needing to communicate ever again, free to begin the cycle over again: the final scenes are among the most abyssally bleak, without ever stating outright this is what is happening, of twenty-first century cinema. How you respond was entirely dependent on whether you were prepared to give up on the human race: some of us are still prepared to hope. Music by Evgueni and Sacha Galperine.
[Altitude's Blu-ray captures the chill in the air, and has a making of and director Q&A (through an interpreter) as extra featurettes.]