Loveless: Ballads of The Incompetent Parents
In this article, Yus reflects on Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017), a modern masterpiece that triggers a silent contemplation. This is a work for audience to wonder how the weight of one’s action to their loved ones in a very cold manner.
How could a person be loveless? There is no other filmmaker who makes films about the dearth of self-love in today’s increasingly callous and narcissistic world as powerfully as Andrey Zvyagintsev does.
In Loveless, a soon-to-be-divorced couple in an unaffectionate marriage tries to toss away the custody of their only child to each other; Boris believes that it is the mother’s duty to raise her child, while Zhenya believes that the father needs to start taking responsibility for his actions. The marriage was, after all, his idea, which he seemed to quickly get bored of.
We see the verbal war between husband and wife over who gets the burden of raising the child from the perspective of Alyosha, who can’t possibly be older than 12. Zvyagintsev seemed to have cast a boy with the facial features of a cherub not to arouse audiences’ sympathy, but as further attack to the couple who delude themselves in the belief that drawing a blank slate can automatically fill their hearts with love. About 30 minutes into the film, the child runs away, and it took the parents two whole days to realize that.
What follows is one of the most haunting and portentous search operations ever depicted in cinema. Zvyagintsev isn’t concerned with the conscience of the child as he is with the adults. The search and rescue operation is essentially, marriage counseling from hell for them. The question he seems to want to ask is: Are the most repulsive father and mother ever depicted on film truly irredeemable, or are they simply victims of monstrous societal and cultural values?
In a film filled with so much emotional restraint and physical barrenness, there are some genuinely humane moment involving even the most contemptuous characters. When we think that Zhenya is deserving of the title of world’s worst mother, we witness her sincere profession to her new lover that she had never loved anyone before except for her mother when she was little, which actually warmed my heart up a little.
When we finally get to meet her devilish mother, it felt entirely possible to forgive all of Zhenya’s sin as a mother just in that one instant. Even Boris, normally passive and the first to shirk off any responsibilities, displayed a rare protective side to his then still legal wife in front of this creature from another world (the Soviet world). Yet, Zvyagintsev ensures that even Natalya Potapova’s character doesn’t get reduced to a single caricature, as he displays in one simple but effective and moving scene after her child has left her house.
Zhenya and Boris, like many of Zvyagintsev’s characters, are just trying to build the best lives they can for themselves, in hope of one day obtaining the happiness that they never had and still dream of attaining. They may not be emotionally equipped to do so properly, but in their struggle to do so, we can at least relate to those basic needs that make them human.
What Zvyagintsev seems to have absolutely no regard for is a society that places value in material affluence, public status, and territorial conquest at the expense of the emotional maturity and fulfillment of its populace. People eat, drink, fuck, and brawl excessively in his films because they find no other way to cope with a world that is so indifferent and predatory towards the human soul.
One of the most characteristic traits of Zvyagintsev’s films, by means of virtuoso cinematographer Mikhail Krichman; are long shots of individuals dwarfed by enormous structures in a vast, barren wasteland. In Loveless we see this shot during a search and rescue operation past the midway point of the film, as Boris stood alone in an empty building in silent contemplation, perhaps realizing the weight of his action to his son for the first time. These kinds of imageries seem to crystallize the future that Zvyagintsev sees in his country if they continue down the beaten path.
Also read: Another Round: Reflection on Courage
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Yusgunawan Marto, Jakarta Cinema Club
Yusgunawan is a Director/Cinematographer at NYRA and senior writer at Jakarta Cinema Club