“Loveless” and “Permission”
Andrey Zvyagintsev’s apocalyptic tale of a lost Russian child, and Brian Crano’s winning comedy of bougie bed-hopping.
In retrospect, was it wise to invite Andrey Zvyagintsev to contribute to “New York, I Love You” (2008)? It’s a clumsy portmanteau of short films, with directors ranging from Natalie Portman to Brett Ratner, designed to send a collective valentine to the city. Zvyagintsev’s nine-minute segment, “Apocrypha,” begins in a dark alley, where a teen-ager is greeted by his father, who lends him a video camera and asks, “How’s Mom?” We realize, without being told, that the parents are separated. The kid then uses the camera to film a woman—his mother, perhaps?—breaking up with another man, in a scene of public grief. “Apocrypha” did not make the final cut of “New York, I Love You,” winding up as an extra on the DVD. Big surprise. If you seek romance, Zvyagintsev is not your man.
His latest movie is entitled “Loveless.” That’s more like it. The setting is modern Moscow and its environs, and much of the action takes place in the scrubby, unpretty half-world, neither town nor country, that Zvyagintsev has staked out as his patch. In “Elena” (2011), the middle-aged heroine travels out of the city to see her son, walking down a rough track that might feel rustic were it not for the concrete cooling towers of the power plant beside it. Likewise, in “Loveless,” a bunch of people fan out through ranks of conifers, the pastoral mood eroded by a giant radar dish that stares through the boughs, as if it were an artificial sun. Another scene unfolds in an abandoned hotel, dripping like a grotto, its luxury fittings reduced to broken junk. Nature is reasserting control, as it once did in the Roman forum, but this ruin is only a few years old, and it’s decaying as fast as a corpse.
Twelve-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is a creature of these twilit zones. He walks back unaccompanied from school through the leafless woods. His home is in one of the apartment blocks that wall in the landscape like the backdrop of a stage. There is a grassy hillside nearby, where others stroll and play, but he sits in his room and watches through the window, which weeps with rain. He is “constantly crying,” his mother, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), says, in a tone not of pity but of tetchy complaint, as if his tears had nothing to do with her. His father, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), is no more sympathetic, and you would hesitate to call them a family. The parents are on the brink of selling the apartment and splitting up, and Alyosha is in danger of disappearing down the crack. One evening, as they argue about who will get custody, we glimpse Alyosha, listening behind the bathroom door, his young face twisted into a soundless howl. Somehow his silence makes it even more shattering. We could be watching Eisenstein.
What Alyosha doesn’t know is that his parents have new lives up and running elsewhere. His mother is involved with a rich older man, whose apartment is more spacious than hers, and who takes her out to fancy dinners, where she rubs her foot against his crotch. As for Boris, his girlfriend is carrying his child; pushing a cart around the supermarket, they seem like a married couple already. We see both Boris and Zhenya enjoying voracious sex away from home, as if their roaming appetites cried out to be fed, and, when an exhausted Zhenya creeps back in the small hours, she doesn’t even bother to check that her son is O.K. Only when his school calls to report that he is absent does she notice anything awry, and Boris, at first, is not too concerned. In truth, Alyosha was lost to them long ago. How can he be missing when he was barely there?
This theme, of the unwanted or unacknowledged child, burns fiercely in Zvyagintsev’s work. Nobody who saw his début feature, “The Return” (2003), will forget the opening minutes, in which a boy is left stranded and shivering on a tall platform above the sea; the rest of that movie tells of his vanished father, who turns up as a near-stranger and struggles to reconnect with his sons. The plot of “The Banishment” (2007) centers on a woman who is pressured by her husband to abort a baby, which he wrongly believes was fathered by somebody else, and “Loveless” is, if anything, bleaker still. The domestic drama of the first half makes way for a kind of procedural thriller, viscous in pace but relentless in its dread, as Boris and Zhenya, with the aid of volunteers, institute a hunt for Alyosha—quizzing his teachers, his schoolmate, and his terrifying grandmother, and even nerving themselves to inspect an unidentified body. If you’re hoping that they might, in the crucible of this crisis, join together and defy the title of the movie, rediscovering their love for each other, you don’t know Zvyagintsev. Get ready for a fight in a morgue.
Why is it, then, that “Loveless,” which has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, should be so much more gripping than grim? One reason is that, for all the deadened souls who throng the tale, the telling could not be more alive. The characters may be stuck; the camera is on the move. Watch it stir and glide, never wild or abrupt but as stealthy as a sleuth. A school principal cleans a blackboard and leaves the room, whereupon we advance to the window, as if to check for predators in the snow outside, and, when Alyosha trudges home, we pause to approach the roots of a tree, and the earthy shadow-space that gapes between them. Is someone hiding in the hole? Could the boy find refuge there? If the mystery of this film is never satisfactorily solved, it’s not for want of clues. Everything we see can be taken down in evidence and used.
As for the guilty party, blame Russia. The indictment that Zvyagintsev issued to his native land in his previous film, “Leviathan” (2014), was blistering enough, but “Loveless” is equally unsparing in its diagnosis of spiritual rot. There are shades of Solzhenitsyn in the way that Zvyagintsev condemns both the repressive machinery of the social order and the trappings that are proffered by the free market; Boris works for a company whose policy, loyal to the Orthodox bent of Putin’s regime, demands that the employees be married, happily or otherwise, while Zhenya’s primary object of worship is not her paramour but her shining cell phone. Call it an iCon. “To love and selfies!” young women exclaim, toasting one another at a restaurant, and there are times when the movie feels almost too punitive for its own good—as though the parents, in their moral fecklessness, deserved to be stripped of their offspring. Now and then, we hear people on TV predicting apocalypse, but, where Tarkovsky, in “The Sacrifice” (1986), hinted at nuclear catastrophe, Zvyagintsev seems to foretell a less fiery climax: a gradual eating away of our human skills. “Do you think the world is about to end?” Boris asks a colleague, over lunch. The man chews and swallows, then replies, “Definitely.”
Another country, another town, another couple on the slide. In “Permission,” two lively British actors, Rebecca Hall and Dan Stevens, play two American lovers, Anna and Will. She is completing her Ph.D. in music at N.Y.U. He runs a bespoke furniture business, while fixing up a house where the two of them will beautifully dwell. (It’s in Park Slope, but you guessed that already.) They are happy, healthy, and handsome, and there’s the rub: life is just perfect. It’s a nightmare.
One problem is that Anna and Will met when they were young and have slept only with each other. Unless they have Amish pals we never see, this fact surely makes them unique among their contemporaries, and Anna is starting to wonder whether she should, before settling down to the prix fixe, sample something else on the menu. Will goes along with the idea, which is weird, though not half as weird as his decision to hang around in a bar while she gets picked up by another guy. For a moment, I thought that Will was going to follow them home, stand by the bed with a clipboard, and take notes.
In case one agonizing impasse of the bourgeoisie is not enough, Anna’s brother Hale (David Joseph Craig) has a conundrum of his own. He is getting broody, and ponders adopting a child, but his partner, the glowering Reece (Morgan Spector), is unconvinced. (In the real world, Spector is married to Hall, and Craig is married to the film’s director, Brian Crano. They should market this movie with a special edition of Twister.) Almost everything about “Permission” feels flighty and parochial when laid beside the fateful mire of “Loveless,” yet Hall, in particular, lends a sober grace to the erotic roundelay. When, at last, her character receives a proposal of marriage, she blushes with perplexity, not joy, and the frown that furrows her brow tells of a deep dissatisfaction with the romantic norms. Who wants a happy ending when you can try a fresh start?
"The New Yorker"