Best foreign film nominee Loveless comes to us from Russia with … well, as the title announces, it's not love.
The movie opens in the tower apartment that a young mother named Zheyna (Maryana Spivak) is hawking to potential buyers, who want to know why she's selling.
Divorce, she says
Sorry, the visitors say.
No worries, she says brightly, and she's means it.
A bit later, her soon-to-be ex-husband, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), shows up to talk about custody — neither wants their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). They fight bitterly about it. She says getting pregnant was a mistake, getting married was a mistake, denounces her husband as weak, and says it's a trait he's passed on to his cowering son.
She takes a bathroom break, and as she storms out to renew her attack, the door swings aside to reveal the child, hiding and weeping in the shadows.
The movie, believe it or not, gets even more bleak. What keeps it watchable is the way director Andrey Zvyagintsev links problems of a disintegrating family (as he did in Leviathan) to a larger national malaise — television and radios blare with news reports of corrupt governments, a dispirited population obsessed with "apocalyptic sentiments."
Loveless follows Zheyna and Boris into the separate lives they are arranging for themselves — she with a wealthier man, he with a younger woman. Their son, correctly deducing that he is unwanted, runs off, leading to the missing persons drama that forms the bulk of the movie.
Loveless, though, is not a thriller. Startling revelations and plot flourishes are not in the offing. Instead, the search for the child forms a portrait of bureaucratic and community indifference.
Zheyna learns that a hospital has admitted a boy that matches her son's description, and wonders why she wasn't notified earlier. The police were changing shifts, a nurse says, so another missing kid got lost in the shuffle.
"It happens a lot."
It's a tough two hours, but director Zvyagintsev invites engagement by giving us more than a chronicle of dysfunction — he's searching for its source. The missing-boy investigation, for instance, takes us to the home of Zheyna's mother, and we learn that Zheyna's cruelty and short-circuited maternal instincts are inherited.
We also learn Zvyagintsev is not a fan of the smartphone. Zheyna is so consumed by her news feed that it's two days before she even knows her boy is missing. There are some hair-raising product placements for Apple devices (a pattern repeated in next week's Thoroughbreds), used as shorthand here for the characters' pathological detachment.
If Mother Zheyna is a stand-in for Mother Russia, and Zvyagintsev bluntly suggests that she is, then this movie is one, big unflattering selfie.
Loveless. Directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev. With. Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, and Matvey Novikov. Distributed by Sony Classics.
Running time: 129 minutes
Parents guide: R