How can a mother stop loving her child? Let’s imagine. The child is born, a miracle: fingers, toes, senses – all. Green poop? Let’s forget about the first excretion. The babe takes milk – ouch, steady. The crying, the nappy changes, the feeding – can someone please help? The father dotes but has to go to work. The child’s grandmother is severe in disapproval. She never liked the father. Her only daughter could have married better. The mother recovers her shapeliness – still beautiful. But the crying, the potty training, feeding, walking – where has baby got to? Then the crying again – an accident. Mother searches for a towel to stem the bleeding. She takes the best one – ruined. She has been brought to this. Suddenly the father is interested. Lifting him up, carrying him on his shoulders. ‘He never shows such affection with me,’ she thinks. Adult talk: no promotion. The mother wants to live better; she’s fed up of this apartment. The father’s pained face: he’s trying. The child breaks a plate. It’s an accident. The mother counts the crockery, a wedding gift depleted by ignorance. The boy goes to school. Mother looks at herself in the mirror – still beautiful. She attracts attention, warmth. Her child is an embarrassment. She wants to be seen for herself. She takes a lover who showers her with compliments, real food and company. There is a world outside her home and she can taste it. She married too soon, she did everything too soon. The child is a reminder. The father discovers her infidelity and leaves. He seeks solace with another woman in another cramped apartment. Before long he is expecting another baby. Why can’t he take the boy? ‘A boy deserves to be with his mother.’ Impasse: the mother hates the father. She looks at the boy, the reminder of the life she doesn’t want. The boy understands everything. Away from the other boys at school, relieved of the pretence of bravado, he starts to cry.
This, with some embellishment, is the starting point of Loveless (Нелюбовь) a film co-written and directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev (The Return, Elena, Leviathan) who is Russia’s most internationally acclaimed chronicler of contemporary urban woe. The film is set before the Russian intervention in Ukraine, before the mother nation shows its scrupulous concern for the peoples of Donbas, who, owing to the inconvenience of geography, experience the neglect of care that only a military intervention can provide.
Alexey (Matvey Novikov) is a twelve year old boy who wants a home, not a room, not a mother cursing him, ordering him, full of indignation and barely suppressed regret. His mother Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) has lost of the softness of discourse with the two men who share her patronymic. But at least the apartment will be sold and her connection with the boy’s father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin) will be severed. Only one day the boy disappears and the warring couple are reunited in anxiety and recrimination, searching with as much feeling as they can muster for the missing child.
Zvyagintsev has little sympathy for Zhenya, except when we meet the aforementioned maternal grandmother in the hope that young Alexey is somehow with her. Her bitterness, accompanied by a barking dog – a metaphor for inchoate discontent – speaks volumes. Boris has to act the happily married man for the sake of getting on in his company; divorced men don’t fit in. Society in modern Russia denies the possibility of personal disappointment, emerging alienation, bad choices fuelled by flickers of desire. Every attempt to find the boy is punctuated by argument – at one point, on a quiet country road, Boris orders Zhenya out of the car. Only the volunteer services can help in the search, though there is something perfunctory about their stop-start efforts – they are not conducted out of care.
Like many women in the film, Zhenya’s eyes are locked on her mobile phone. Instead of some issues being more important than others, each post on her twitter feed somehow merits more attention than her own flesh and blood. Zvyagintsev discounts any motion that Zhenya is suffering from mental illness – bipolarity and the like. Instead, he attacks attention-sucking social media, observing that narcissism and not empathy has won.
With characters that are hard to like, it is surprising to discover that sex scenes involving Zhenya and her wealthy lover offer some erotic pleasure. It is the one time that the (male, heterosexual) viewer feels something. Then with a start it occurs to you: you experience most pleasure watching others having sex only when you don’t care about them. The film doesn’t make us experience guilt about feeling little for the characters. Rather it actually compensates for our lack of empathy by giving us another pleasure. In this sense, Loveless is not a condemnation of a world without warm or investment in others, warts and all; instead, it shows us how it is possible to live without love through other sensory gratifications.
There is a coda, a few years on, in which the military intervention in Ukraine is observed by desensitised characters. We are invited to reflect upon our own distance from the sufferings of others, to consider whether it is enough to be a consumer taking what is available to us or whether we should make choices that could affect – for the better – the world in the future. I suspect that Zvyagintsev, in his sincere appeal for compassion, is preaching to the compassionate and that if he really wants to shake the unfeeling out of their torpor, he ought to give them something to worry about.
Loveless is out in cinemas 9 February!