It starts wintry and only gets colder, darker and icier in this spooky, artful and obliquely political film from Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev ('Elena', 'The Return'). What begins as a stark study of the breakdown of a marriage in a small Russian city expands into a more languid, mysterious drama about disconnected lives and failed responsibilities, centred around a missing child whose disappearance haunts the film. 'Loveless' doesn't have the same epic scope as Zvyagintsev's last film, 2014's Oscar-nominated 'Leviathan': this is quieter and more ruminative, closer to 'Elena' in scale. But it's graced with unsettling power and ghostly, searching camerawork that's compelling even when the story occasionally lags or drifts.
Boris (Alexey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) share a flat with their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), but they're living separate lives and are on the cusp of divorce. He's already hooked up with another woman, Masha (Marina Vasilyeva), who's also seeing wealthy Anton (Andris Keishs). Between these romances and Boris's dull office job, there's little time for Aloysha, who we barely see – though a devastating cut to him crying in a bathroom while his parents scream at each other tells us everything we need to know.
In the film's strongest stretch, Zvyagintsev cuts between husband and wife separately in bed with their new partners in the shadowy winter light. The film takes a different turn when Alyosha goes missing: police and search parties comb the area while his parents shout and seethe at each other. There's no reconciliation or moving-on here – just more pain.
If 'Loveless' feels at times like an underpowered crime mystery, by way of compensation there's a strong sense that Zvyagintsev is interested in higher matters than the tension of a police investigation. There's a strong whiff of a morality play here: a couple being punished for their failed relationship and poor parenting, and representing a broader rot in society. There are unsubtle hints at the disassociating role of new technology in our lives, while a late shot of Zhenya on a treadmill wearing a tracksuit emblazoned with 'Russia', just after we've heard reports on the TV of the war in Ukraine, feels a little too on the nose. Mostly, though, this is a film dominated by an atmosphere of sadness, emotional failure and doom. A fiercely smart drama, its despairing mood sticks with you long after it ends.