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film review

Maryana Spivak as Zhenya and Matvey Novikov as Alyosha in Loveless.

It's not often you see back-to-back sex scenes used as a narrative strategy in film but Andrey Zvyagintsev is an emphatic director. In Loveless, the festival favourite and Oscar nominee for best foreign film, Zvyagintsev first shows us Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) luxuriating in the embrace of her wealthy lover, and then her husband Boris (Aleksey Rozin) more gingerly engaged in sex with his very pregnant girlfriend.

This toxic couple have agreed to divorce and both have already taken new partners; trouble is, as they savour these loves, nobody is back at their apartment minding their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). When the boy disappears, neither parent can say exactly when he was last home – or wants to admit that the last conversation they had was a vicious argument about which one would be saddled with him when they split.

What follows is a slow but unrelenting psychological procedural as a team of well-co-ordinated volunteers search for a child assumed to be a runaway – while the estranged Zhenya and Boris find themselves compelled to join forces to help.

Zvyagintsev is utterly unforgiving in his portrait of Russia's grasping middle class and of Alyosha's neglectful parents, the one a vain shrew who runs a beauty parlour, the other a disengaged bore who works in sales in some nameless office. The director achieves a harrowing drama both through his principals' richly detailed portraits of their unattractive characters and through his own powerful use of image and symbol as Aloysha gazes out to the woods beyond his rain-streaked apartment window or, in a quiet piece of foreshadowing at the top of the film, unwraps a piece of ratty old caution tape from around a tree.

Yet for all that the director's unflinching vision, the cast's excellent performances and Mikhail Krichman's unerring cinematography impress themselves upon the viewer, there is something out of balance in Loveless. After Zvyagintsev skewered Russia with notes of black comedy interrupting the political tragedy in 2014's Oscar-nominated Leviathan, his dramatic critique of his homeland is turning increasingly sour.

Partly, it's the characters. Zhenya is an appalling figure. (Spivak's performance is courageous and convincing in that regard.) Having married because she was pregnant and failing to bond with an unwanted child, she is unkind to her son and vicious to her husband but, in one particularly pointed scene set in a gilt-edged restaurant, simperingly flirtatious with her new lover. In the background, a group of young women propose a toast to love … and to selfies.

Perhaps Zhenya is angry at her husband's brazen infidelity, although it's no worse then her own, or perhaps she's simply inherited her rage: her mother, the grandmother to whom Alyosha would seem unlikely to flee, is a harridan sinking into paranoid senescence. So it is not merely the new middle class, more interested in their phones than their children, who are angry and self-absorbed. Apart from one calm volunteer in the search for Alyosha, there is not a single sympathetic or even neutral woman in this film, which includes a particularly nasty scene that suggests the pregnant girlfriend is also manipulating Boris.

If this is starting to feel perilously close to misogynism, it is because the men are much more neutrally portrayed. Boris is disengaged, ineffectual, despairing maybe, but knows more about his son's only friend or what clothes he was wearing than the narcissistic Zhenya. Meanwhile, the police investigator who will do little to pursue the umpteenth runaway is merely honest while the straight-talking organizer of the volunteers is a hard but admirable figure of action.

The volunteers, who step in because the police won't search for the child, produce some spectacular imagery as they fan out through the woods where Alyosha used to play, but mainly they provide Zvyagintsev with the armature of the plot. Here is a group of people devoting hours of their own time for no other reason than to help strangers, yet both Alyosha's parents and the director seem to take their altruism for granted.

Loveless concludes heavily with an image of Zhenya doing her morning workout on a treadmill on the balcony of her lover's apartment dressed in an Olympic tracksuit that says RUSSIA across her chest. So, this is Putin's Russia, a place of selfishness so monstrous that even Loveless's own filmmaker cannot recognize the humanity that might be found in its midst.

Loveless opens Feb. 23 in Toronto and Montreal