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Child Nonsupport

Anna Matveeva/Sony Pictures Classics

Loveless (2017)

As a metaphor, “Loveless” is as subtle as an anvil. As an examination of a very ordinary way lives can be ruined, it’s spectacular and devastating. It’s somehow both extremely kind and extremely cruel, although often the kindness is given to the people who need it the least. And it all hangs on one moment in a restaurant – more on which later.

The movie’s opening shot follows a boy, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), on his way home from school alongside a river in Moscow parkland. Eventually, we learn from radio discussion of the Obama-Romney debates that it’s 2012. He lives in a high-rise solidly middle-class flat, but it’s in the process of being sold, since Alyosha’s parents, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Alexey Rozin), are in the middle of an awful divorce. How awful? Well, that night, Zhenya doesn’t even look up from scrolling through her phone to tell Boris that she is through with being the primary parent; and since he won’t step up and take custody, Alyosha will just have to go to boarding school and get used to it.

Boris and Zhenya are too engrossed in their vile argument to realize Alyosha has heard every horrible word. There is a shot of him behind a door, gagging on a scream, that cuts through you like a sword. But he doesn’t say anything to anyone. He cries himself to sleep, but no one notices. Next morning he picks at his breakfast while Zhenya snaps at him. He puts on his coat, picks up his schoolbag, and walks out the door.

We then spend a leisurely day going between the working lives of Zhenya, who manages a beauty salon and confides in her employees, and Boris, who has an unspecified job in an office so tightly controlled by religious owners that frightened employees will if necessary hire wife-and-child impersonators for team events. Boris learns all this over lunch, as he tries to figure out if divorce will cost him his career. The reason this is so pressing becomes clear when we meet Masha (Marina Vasilyeva), Boris’s much younger new girlfriend, who is heavily pregnant. We never learn a thing about Boris’s private thoughts and he never discusses anything except his career. We learn more about Masha’s hopes and dreams than we do about his. The double standard is alive and well, but this is a big failure of Oleg Negin’s script. It should not be assumed that what Boris wants, or needs, is so obvious that it can go unspoken.

Zhenya has a new partner too, named Anton (Andris Keishs), an older man with an adult daughter who she has never even introduced to Alyosha. In his posh apartment, after sex, Zhenya explains to him how he is the only person she’s ever loved, and why that love was never extended to Boris or Alyosha. Ms. Spivak does this deeply emotional and disturbing monologue in an uninterrupted shot, completely naked. Talk about everyday sexism.

So it’s not until the next morning that the main plot twist – which should not have been spoiled so by the marketing materials – sinks in. What unfolds is a deeply upsetting search that doesn’t overplay what’s at stake. For starters, we all know how cold it is. The police are sympathetic, but too overworked to offer any help. Zhenya and Boris find themselves in the capable hands of a volunteer organization led by a calmly observant coordinator (Alexey Fateev), who has clearly done this dirty job many times before. The jolie-laide sequences of earnest young people in high-visibility jackets moving in attentive silence through Moscow’s ugly and abandoned places are a masterclass in the slow burn, almost invisible building of unbearable, unforgivable tension.

Hope is a luxury no one can afford, or expects. Alyosha had almost no friends. The only extended family is a sour bitch of a grandmother that Boris accurately describes as Stalin-in-a-skirt. The argument that Zhenya and Boris have after visiting her is the most brutally devastating one two parents could possibly have. The cruelty is casual, but genuine, and so passionately meant that Boris throws Zhenya out of the car on a country highway and drives off. He really leaves her there. And yet other reviews (and the movie’s Wikipedia page) speak about this fight – and their relationship – as if Boris is an innocent victim, and Zhenya entirely to blame, whereas their dialogue makes it brutally clear it’s not so simple. If director Andrey Zvyagintsev really was aiming for a political metaphor about Russia, this one-sided reaction must annoy. But the film allows Masha to do Boris’s emotional work for him, which undercuts that thesis. The sweet sequence where Masha and her mother lazily bicker while shopping for baby clothes is no replacement for learning just why Boris cares more about his career than his kid. The unfairness ratches up to the film’s final shot of Zhenya, which is about as subtle as a piano full of anvils, with the pain to match. If blame is to be apportioned – and there is plenty of that to go around – a smarter film would also have been a fair one.

However, an extraordinary shot halfway through the film makes it clear that objectivity is not on the agenda here. The camera tracks Zhenya as she enters an upscale restaurant for dinner with Anton. A beautiful brunette crosses the screen, and suddenly a male voice hisses at her, says she’s beautiful, asks for her number. The brunette turns, smiles into the lens and quickly obliges before smoothly rejoining her boyfriend at their table. The camera then carries on to Zhenya and Anton’s table as the entire movie blows apart.

Is the camera – and by extension the audience – meant to be a human observer following both Zhenya and Boris unobserved? Is it meant to be an omnipotent person that can casually pick up a chick while quietly judging this couple? Is it God himself, and a horny devil at that? What the hell is Mr. Zvyagintsev doing by smashing apart the third wall? Is it just another sexist jape, unconscious or not, or is it a bigger symbol of the world’s indifference to Alyosha’s suffering?

Because that anguish – that shot of Alyosha behind the door – is what will stay with you after the film is over. As the world becomes daily a more callous and selfish place, where video-game logic renders human compassion wretched and pointless, when more people find their only joy in causing the suffering of others, that shot of the silently howling child is enough to stop anyone in his or her tracks. His parents might have their reasons, and their reasons might be good ones. But what do they matter against the suffering of their little boy?


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