The first film to show in the official competition for the Palme d’Or, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Nelyubov (Loveless) begins as a portrait of doomed marriage before reconfiguring itself, surprisingly but organically, into a stark missing-person thriller. It is a bleak and increasingly mesmerising film full of indelible images smothered in rain, snow and ambiguity, though perhaps a little blunt in its efforts to allegorise modern Russia.
Still co-inhabiting but already seeing new partners, Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) clash incessantly, his emotional numbness inflaming her callous put-downs. Neither are much concerned regards the damage their toxic arguments are having on 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), and one heart-piercing shot shows him cowering behind the bathroom door in a silent scream.
Then he disappears. The parents, faced with the blank-faced bureaucracy of the police, turn to a volunteer group experienced in such matters, and much of the film’s second half unfolds as a procedural thriller: interviewing friends and neighbours, scouring emails and social media, putting up flyers, upturning derelict buildings and desolate landscapes, visiting hospitals and morgues.
What doesn’t happen is that Boris and Zhenya find common ground and redemption in the quest to find their missing son. Zvyagintsev doesn’t deal in such triteness, instead painting a picture of a family and country in moral and socio-political crisis. The end of the world, as foretold by the Maya prophecy, is at hand, and fireball or no, Zvyagintsev clearly feels Russia has reached an endpoint given the cruelty on display, the scrabble for survival and status, and the frequent news bulletins telling of corruption and war.
Like his previous film Leviathan, which won the best screenplay award in 2014, Loveless starts small and personal and then widens its scope to take in officialdom and a national (global?) populace skittering towards spiritual bankruptcy. That film managed to possess greater amounts of both subtlety and grandeur – not an easy trick to pull off – but Loveless stands nonetheless as a work of considerable artistry and power.