The opposite of Love

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Review of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (Нелюбовь)

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“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” -- Elie Wiesel

At the beginning of the film Loveless, two protagonists Zhenya and Boris, a middle-class couple going through the final stage of their nasty divorce, are blinded by hate. The two have a twelve-year-old son, whom none of them wishes to take care of. To them, their son is merely a burden dragging them behind as they rapidly move on to new chapters in life, or a haunting ghost from their failed marriage continually reminding them about their ugly faces of hatred. As if their secret wish was granted, their son soon goes on missing. The incident forces the couple to unify. However, the hatred between the two escalates to a new level as they go on a road trip to look for their son at Zhenya's estranged mother's place, where we catch a glimpse of how abusiveness is passed on from generations. As the searching continues, the falling snow absorbs all the noises of complaining, quarreling, and fighting. Eventually, it reaches a moment of silence, when the hope of finding the boy becomes dim. At the end of the story, Zhenya and Boris, finally parted, have come to the opposite of love. They become indifferent toward each other and the missing boy who was once their son.

The film has demonstrated a skillful usage of contrast. Storywise, we see the sharp contrast between the selfish parents, who care mostly about pursuing their individual happiness and shy away from their shared responsibilities of childrearing, and the selfless volunteers who work together trying every possible way to find the boy. Cinematically, we experience the contrast between the spatial tightness and turmoil in the interior quarreling scenes and the openness and quietness in the exterior searching scenes.

There are several memorizing scenes in loveless that linger in my mind. One is the scene where volunteers search around the son's afterschool hideout, abandoned buildings in the middle of woods. The empty and collapsing space once occupied by the boy vividly translate his feelings of abandonment and isolation visually. The buildings, which used to be occupied by families and happiness, can also be viewed as an excellent visual representation of the state of divorce. Another scene is in the end where Zhenya, the mother, unable to bear more suffocating news on the Ukarian war, puts on her Team RUSSIA running jacket (clever choice of the costume), starts running on the treadmill. Seeing Zhenya's lost eyes, I can't help asking: after all the misfortunes and traumas, is she (the nation) really moving forward or just running nonstop at the same spot?

What I'm most impressed by the film is its nonjudgmental yet critical, compassionate yet non-sentimental point of view. All the social commentaries about the contemporary Russian society, technology, sex, and religion are carefully painted in the background of the main story, precisely and naturally. All the flawed characters are treated with care and respect. Take Zhenya's abusive mother for example; after the couple leaves the grandmother's house, the camera stays within the room, forcing the audience to stay with the monstrous and cruel grandmother. Soon, we see this woman taking off her facade, as she rubs her tiring face and reveals her state of loneliness and sadness. The film filled with brokenness surprisingly has a full circle ending.

The story ends with the shot of the loose strand of police tape, which the son threw onto the tree at the beginning of the film, swaying slightly against the winter sky. Somehow, the ending shot reminds me of Pan’s Labyrinth’s ending (maybe because they are both shots of the trees?). “And that she left behind small traces of her time on Earth, visible only to those who know where to look.” The boy in Loveless also left a small trace of his existence hanging on the leafless tree branches. However, sadly, it's almost impossible for his indifferent parents to open their eyes and to look for his trace in this freezing and loveless winter of Moscow.