AFI Fest Review: ‘LOVELESS’ is a provocative parable on parenting, marital discord
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Parenting has its own special set of challenges. Some adults learn the hard way that maybe they aren’t cut out for the task – but usually not before the kids make that fact well known to them. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s LOVELESS tackles the cold hard truths of parenthood, turning in a bleak, chilling and uncompromising feature. This is a provocative parable with a sharp bite that tears the flesh.
Twelve-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) doesn’t exactly have Ward and June Cleaver for parents. His parents Zheyna (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are going through a nasty divorce. A bitter chill is descending upon the home and the city. Even though Alyosha lives with his mother, she’s cruel, cold and always preoccupied with her own selfish wants. His father isn’t much better – primarily concerned with keeping up appearances at work so as not to lose his job. Both parents are eager to start their lives with others – Boris with his pregnant mistress Masha (Marina Vasileva) and Zheyna with her wealthy new beau Anton (Andris Keyshs). And surprise! Neither wants custody of Alyosha – and unfortunately he knows it. One day Alyosha disappears. Was he kidnapped, or did he run away? More provocatively, is he better off?
There’s a certain jolt of exhilaration that comes with seeing Zvyagintsev’s ballsy, unflinching portrait of adults whose humanity is bankrupt. It authentically reflects contentious divorces where the child is tossed around like a rag doll. That said, it’s an audacious challenge to start the audience off detesting these characters and then slowly ingratiate them with us. It’s akin to reverse-engineering likability. That’s pretty revolutionary.
We’ve seen abusive mothers before in cinema – in MOMMIE DEAREST, PRECIOUS: BASED ON THE NOVEL PUSH BY SAPPHIRE, CARRIE – but never quite like this. Mom is neglectful, essentially relegating Alyosha to latchkey kid status with the way she treats him. She’s always on her phone, diving into others’ lives, reality TV blaring in the background, making noise so she won’t be alone with her thoughts. Why should she be? Society is now built so that no one ever has to be truly alone. Her post-coital confession to her new guy is heartbreaking. And just when you think your eyes couldn’t widen further, we meet her mother. Dad also doesn’t escape harsh judgement as he’s either a dolt or a sociopath, acting more concerned about his job rather than his missing son. He also abandons Masha in her time of need. However, there’s an explosive profundity to how both parents’ arcs play out.
LOVELESS belongs up there with films like SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE, REVOLUTIONARY ROAD and BLUE VALENTINE. It’s ironic that films about the dissolution of commitment aren’t afraid to truly commit – and neither is this one. The ties that bind us can also lead to our undoing.
LOVELESS plays AFI Fest on November 11 and 13. It has a qualifying run in December before it opens in limited release in February 2018.