Loveless, review – an ominous portrait of neglect with precious little hope

A divorcing couple argue over custody of their young son in this grim Russian drama, the problem is neither of them wants him. The unsparing pessimism is hard going

Loveless is set in Moscow, at the approach of winter in 2012. A snippet from a radio broadcast reveals there’s much talk of a looming apocalypse, foretold hundreds of years back by the Mayan civilisation. Remember that? Well, the predicted doomsday never materialised. But from the unforgivingly bleak picture of the world that Andrey Zvyaginstev’s film presents you’d be forgiven for wondering what was worth saving.

Armageddon notwithstanding, the film is stalked by a terrible sense of catastrophe. This is an impressive piece of cinema that combines muscular, visual storytelling with powerful performances: but it’s strong stuff, grim, wrenching and darkly unsettling.

It begins at the end of something: a marriage in its exhausting terminal stages. Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) is selling the Moscow apartment she shares with her 12-year-old son Alyosha, and when buyers come to inspect the property they ask why she’s so keen to be rid of it. “Divorce,” she explains, with relief, and the reason for that relief is evident later on, when her soon-to-be-ex-husband Boris (Aleksey Rosin) visits. The fight that quickly ensues is a horrifying spectacle, staged in relentless long takes by Zvyaginstev and performed with raw honesty, applied with jagged aggression by each party, intended to hurt.

The fight that quickly ensues is a horrifying spectacle, staged in relentless long takes by Zvyaginstev and performed with raw honesty

What they’re bickering about is especially unedifying: the custody of young Alyosha. Zhenya and Boris are now with new lovers, and neither wants responsibility for their son. The argument represents a kind of nadir of parental care, and its only redeeming feature is that they’ve at least waited for Alyosha to go to bed before talking about him like this.

Except, unknown to his parents (and shockingly revealed to us), the young boy got up and has overheard everything. Naturally he’s crushed. It’s perhaps no surprise then that a few days later Alyosha disappears.

Loveless charts the search for the missing kid, a search that sees Zhenya and Boris reluctantly thrown together. This is a bitterly unhappy marriage, marked by self-pity, regret and contempt, and so consumed are husband and wife in attacking one another they fail to notice the hurt inflicted on Alyosha. In fact, Zhenya only realises belatedly that her son is not at home because she’s spent the previous day with her new lover.

The cops are called, and even then Alyosha’s welfare barely registers as a priority. He’s probably run away, the detective says as almost a cavalier aside; he’ll come home once the winter nights draw in.

Loveless is an excoriating portrait of neglect, both at a parental and societal level. A group of volunteers spring into action to help look for Alyosha (with a practiced attitude that suggests these kind of missing cases aren’t so rare in contemporary Moscow). Unfurling with a forensic eye for detail, the film is horribly compelling, and its procedural thrills are accompanied by an inexorable dread. The search covers the woods near his family home but stops at the river. Why, Boris asks a volunteer. “We don’t look for bodies,” comes the reply.

Loveless is brilliantly accomplished and yet I found its unsparing pessimism hard going. The film’s despair feels a little manufactured: the subtleties of human behaviour are sacrificed to justify a forbiddingly hopeless worldview. Still, it’s a bold film from Zvyaginstev, who will make a return trip (after 2014’s Leviathan) to this year’s Oscars, where he’s nominated for Best Foreign Language Film.

Loveless is in cinemas from February 9