Andrei Zvyagintsev, 2017
What a pleasure it was to see Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker on the big Civic screen again – fabulous! I saw the film when it screened at the NZIFF in 1981, and it left an indelible memory. To be honest, I went into this year's screening with some trepidation, knowing from experience how unkind time can be to favourite films from decades ago. Thankfully, the film hasn’t really dated, all things considered. The clunkiness was always there (Tarkovsky was no action director, it has to be said), but the philosophical inquiry is as relevant at it was 35-years ago, maybe more so, and the cinematic qualities are undiminished. I also discovered that it’s more overtly Christian than I remembered, despite knowing that it has always had a thumping big Christian heart. This restoration impressed on all levels. It looked and sounded better than ever, and even the subtitles are better!
There are a few moments in Andrei Zvyagintsev’s Loveless that recall Stalker, along with the work of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Krzysztof Kieślowski (Tarkovsky devotees), but these resonances were fleeting. It’s too early to judge whether Loveless is in the same league as the best work of such filmmakers, but it was a satisfying and at times devastating experience. It's the only film in this festival that made me choke, twice! The first was when 12-year-old Alyosha (Mayvey Novikov), the son of a bitterly feuding divorced couple, is revealed behind a bathroom door silently overcome by anguished despair. The emotion caught me by surprise – heart-breaking! The next was near the end of the film when a father manhandles his infant son into a cot. It wasn't overtly violent but the callousness was palpable and shocking.
From a simple scenario centred on the search for a missing child, Zvyagintsev and his regular writing partner, Oleg Negin, have fashioned an allegory about indifference of near-apocalyptic proportions. Loveless is a very beautifully realised piece of cinematic poetry, tightly controlled, precisely structured, and exquisitely graceful. Despite the bleakness of the subject matter, it’s gorgeous to watch – and listen to: the music is exceptional! Composer Evgeni Galperin delivered brilliant work, one of the rare times when I’ve listened to the closing credits music all the way to the end with eyes shut. The sound design has a stark beauty, but it’s the music that clearly emphasises and articulates the implicit anger at the heart of the film. The fine cinematography by Zvyagintsev’s regular DP, Mikhail Krichman, is equally superb. The high level of craft across the entire production functions as an effective counterweight to the bleak portrait the film offers of contemporary Russia, as if the creative qualities of the filmmaking express optimistic faith in human endeavour that is absent in the spiritual despair depicted in this appropriately titled film.
One point I must make, however, is that even though this Russian film is critical of systematic failings as well as individual/personal indifference in Russia, the film could be set anywhere. The miserable state of affairs depicted is by no means not unique to Russia. The same could be said about the bureaucratic and societal hell depicted in A Gentle Creature, although Sergei Loznitsa's Kafkaesque nightmare has a distinct East-European flavour. Loveless also shares thematic threads with Zvyagintsev’s Elena (2012), but his new film is a more focused and pointed critique on consumerism, self-absorbed isolation, the erosion of empathy, and the dissolution of societal values in an age of technological hyper-connectivity.
The film primarily focuses on the micro-dramas of Alyosha, his parents, their lovers, family and associates, and the impotence of social services, which reflects a broader societal and political collapse irregardless of the profusion of bankrupt symbols of order and purpose (Christian iconography, luxury consumer goods). But in the closing moments Zyvagintsev and Negin offer a macro-view in a montage that shows the protagonists settled into their new relationships a year or so later. The key component of this sequence is TV news reports about tensions in the Ukraine that ostensibly play as domestic noise in the background, but that serve as an invitation to draw a more broadly political conclusion.
Loveless is notable too for refusing to offer mainstream reassurances about working through differences, if only for the sake of one’s selfish equilibrium if not for the well-being of family, community, and global harmony. No, Loveless means exactly what it says on the label.