|‘Loveless,’ the title of the compelling and forbidding new movie by the Russian director Andrey Zvyagintsev (“Leviathan,” “Elena”), seems, for a while, to refer to the state of the relationship between the film’s two main characters, a Moscow couple who are on the verge of divorcing. Boris (Alexei Rozin), bearded and officious, a kind of mildly saddened Teddy bear, and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), beautiful and knife-edged, with a buried despair of her own, still live together in the same apartment. But they’re trying to sell it off as quickly as possible, because they can barely come up with three words of civility between them.|
Their marriage, or what’s left of it, has reached the toxic point of no return. No one understands this better than Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), their pale and passive 12-year-old son, who doesn’t do much besides stare at his computer between crying fits. When Alyosha disappears without a trace, his emotionally estranged parents have to come together to search for him. But no, “Loveless” isn’t a story about how the search for Alyosha brings Boris and Zhenya closer together, or makes them take stock and stop hating each other. What the movie is about, in a way that’s both potent and oblique, is something larger than the charred ashes of one dead marriage.
There have always been oppressive societies that clamp down on filmmaking, but allow just enough wiggle room of expression for a shrewd — and poetic — artist to say what’s on his mind. That was true in the Communist Czechoslovakia of the 1970s, or in the Iran of the last 30 years. It’s true, as well, of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. As a filmmaker, Andrey Zvyagintsev can’t come right out and declare, in bright sharp colors, the full corruption of his society, but he can make a movie like “Leviathan,” which took the spiritual temperature of a middle-class Russia lost in booze and betrayal, and he can make one like “Loveless,” which takes an ominous, reverberating look not at the politics of Russia but at the crisis of empathy at the culture’s core.
Boris and Zhenya have both moved on to other relationships, which are far more affectionate than the one they’re in, so that seems to be a sign of hope; after divorce comes a new beginning. Boris is with the perky, very pregnant Masha (played by Marina Vasilyeva, who suggests an Eastern European Michelle Williams), and Zhenya, between visits to the salon and a consuming relationship with her smartphone, has found the man who answers her dreams, or at least her needs: the wealthy, handsome, doting, middle-aged Anton (Andris Keishs). Love, it seems, is possible. But what kind of love?
Zvyagintsev colors in a whole society’s romantic neurosis, and he does it with the details along the sidelines. Boris has to keep his divorce hidden at his corporate sales office, because the boss is a fundamentalist Christian. (If Boris isn’t married with children, he’ll be out of a job.) Zhenya’s lover, on the other hand, has given her entre to the one-percent echelon of the new gilded Russia. The film introduces us to it in a telling moment at an outrageously ritzy restaurant where the camera lingers on a woman flirtatiously giving out her phone number…before sitting back down to dinner across from the man she’s come with. That moment speaks volumes — about a clawing-to-the-top ethos of desperate avarice that scarcely leaves room for “romance.”
So what does all this have to do with a missing child? Everything, it turns out. “Loveless” has been made in a forceful and deliberate socialist-realist Hitchcockian style that recalls the most celebrated films of the Romanian new wave (“4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days”; “The Death of Mr. Lazarescu”). The disappearance of Alyosha hangs over the movie and haunts it, and on some level it’s a missing-child procedural. Yet what’s meaningful is the way that he disappeared: He was left unsupervised, and his mother, coming home at night, assumed that he was in his room and didn’t bother to check in on him. A minor mistake…and an epic instance of neglect.
By far the most important ingredient for any artist is life experience: When storytellers try to tackle anything more realistic than a by-the-numbers superhero movie, it helps to have had your heart broken, perhaps to have lost a parent, to have been forced to choose between two lovers, to have fathered a child. With “Ismael’s Ghosts,” Arnaud Desplechin attempts to cram all this and more into a single film. A self-absorbed, nightmare-besotted director (played by Mathieu Amalric) is literally haunted by his past when his wife, presumed dead for 21 years, unexpectedly reappears midway through his latest production — but even though much seems to be informed by autobiography (or at least narcissism), precious little rings true.
As phony emotional showcases go, this one’s full of unintentionally comedic melodrama, rivaling cult favorite “The Room” at times as Amalric (reprising his role as the chronicallly unstable Ismael Vuillard from “Kings and Queen”) overturns furniture and heatedly berates Marion Cotillard (as the wife who walked out on him) before making sweaty love to her. Meanwhile, in another storyline, Ismael courts, then abandons, then ultimately impregnates his new flame, Sylvia (Charlotte Gainsbourg), described as an astrophysicist with her “head in the stars,” all while struggling to make what comes across as world’s least interesting spy movie.
How much of this cinematic pseudo-selfie is informed by life experience? Hard to say — and even harder to swallow. If “Ismael’s Ghosts” were a meal, it would be a massive slab of off-tasting meat alternative, wrapped in fake food, cooked in margarine, then covered in dairy-free imitation cheese.
Even Desplechin, whose supreme indulgence this project was in the first place, has confused matters by preparing two different versions of the film, the 114-minute cut selected to open the Cannes Film Festival, and another, 20 minutes longer, to be screened at the Cinema du Pantheon in Paris. Though both are ostensibly “director’s cuts,” it’s a curious choice on Cannes’ part to favor this potentially compromised shorter version, especially after the festival took a stand three years earlier by showing the widely derided director’s cut of “Grace of Monaco” — a movie that at least had the advantage of being coherent. (RTRS)
“Ismael’s Ghosts,” by contrast, is something of a muddle in its current form, but its inclusion makes a different sort of statement, bringing Desplechin back into the fold of “official selection” after his 2015 feature “My Golden Days” was rejected, only to open rival section Director’s Fortnight instead. That movie was so well received by critics (wildly over-praised in this one’s estimation) that some slammed Cannes for not putting it in competition. So now the fest scoops up a lesser film — lesser, but not uninteresting, as Desplechin continues to expand his semi-autobiographical constellation of characters.
Amalric has played Ismael Vuillard before, but the details here are inconsistent (at one point, he acknowledges a photo of the son he’d adopted in 2004’s “Kings and Queen,” although the ghosts of that marriage and Ismael’s subsequent mental breakdown have been scrubbed from his biography). This time around, Ismael is a director making a movie inspired by his brother, a diplomat whom he believes to be a spy. The film opens with and repeatedly returns to scenes from this production, in which a blank-looking Louis Garrel stars as secret agent Ivan Dedalus (who shares a surname with Paul Dedalus, a character Amalric has played in three other Desplechin pictures: “My Golden Days,” “A Christmas Tale” and the sprawling “My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument”).
To make matters even stranger, Cotillard appeared in “My … Life” 21 years ago, playing one of Paul Dedalus’ young conquests. Here, she once again bares all, this time as entirely different character: namely, Ismael’s ex-wife Carlotta — no doubt an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s own reincarnation fantasy, “Vertigo.” As in that film, Carlotta seems to have come back from the dead, two decades after disappearing from Ismael’s life. After much anguish (including the potentially terminal diagnosis of an unspecified medical condition), Ismael has managed to spark a tentative new romance with Sylvia, until one day, while smoking/boozing/pill-popping his way through rewrites of his spy-movie script, Carlotta reappears to ruin their lives. (RTRS)
By Owen Gleiberman