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Storyline (warning: spoilers)
Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless is a stark, mysterious and terrifying story of spiritual catastrophe, a drama with the ostensible form of a procedural crime thriller. It has a hypnotic intensity and unbearable ambiguity which is maintained until the very end. This is a story of modern Russia whose people are at the mercy of implacable forces, a loveless world like a planet without the full means to support human life, a place where the ordinary need for survival has mutated or upgraded into an unending aspirational demand for status, money, freedom to find an advantageous second marriage which brings a nice apartment, sex, luxury and the social media prerogative of selfies and self-affirmation. But all of it is underpinned, or overseen, by intensely conservative social norms of Christianity, conformism and nationalism.
Zhenya and Boris can’t bear the sight of each other. She is young and pretty but vapid; he is successful, but remote and cold. The marriage has made them both mean. Late at night in their comfortable apartment, 12-year-old Alyosha cowers in his bed, listening to them fight.
Neither wants to take him after the flat is sold. Then the boy is gone. We see him heading off to school but he never arrives. The parents are so self-absorbed they don't notice for 36 hours. A search begins. The police are undermanned. Most runaways come back, says a senior officer, but if you want results, try this private group: they help find missing kids. A group of volunteers swings into action. The couple go to visit her mother, thinking the boy might have gone there. The old woman, half mad and nostalgic, berates her daughter as a whore, whining about the old days.
Zvyagintsev brings a poetic edge to his imagery that jangles the senses. Locations are important in his films; they contain meaning and a sense of history. He also uses the weather here as a kind of implacable threat: when snow begins to fall, the searchers look at each other grimly. The Moscow winter means the boy's chances of survival are even worse.