Russian filmmaker Andrey Zvyagintsev's much-awaited follow-up to Leviathan, his international art-house hit, is one of those films that perfectly captures the essence of its title: Nelyubov (Loveless). The opening frames are of winter, barren trees frosted with ice. It's chillier inside the house of Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), who are on the verge of divorce. "I've had it with you," he yells at her. "Scumbag," she replies. The press notes said the film is inspired by Scenes from a Marriage, but Zvyagintsev's unrelenting unsentimentality makes Bergman look almost like Spielberg.
The film's summary states that it's about "the disappearance of a 12-year-old boy who is caught in the midst of his parents' bitter divorce." And yes, there are scenes suggesting that this may be the direction the narrative takes. Witness, for instance, the first time we see the boy, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov). It's what a lot of us now call the Cache shot, a fixed camera gazing on a wide frame, that of children streaming out from school. It's hard to know who or what we are supposed to be looking at, until the camera singles out a boy in a red jacket (I thought of Spielberg again) and starts following him. The plot is about this boy's disappearance. This shot is about his appearance.
After this rather singular introduction, I thought we'd follow Alyosha's story for a while. But all we get is a couple of scenes of sulking, and one where he overhears his mother and father quarelling and howls silently. (His expressions are heartbreaking.) Because neither of them wants him. And so a story that began with the son moves to his parents, who exhibit — towards him, towards one another — the lovelessness of the title.
Outside their home, both Zhenya and Boris seem like nice, normal people — when we see her with her lover, him with his. They are kind, caring, recognisably human. But inside, it's different. Zhenya, who is always on the phone, cannot forget the fact that Alyosha almost tore her apart at birth, taking 24 hours. She doesn't care to know who his friends are, where he is, what he does, not even if he came back from school. As for Boris, he's just not the paternal type. If we didn't see them with those others, we'd brand them monsters.
Loveless, thus, is a painstaking procedural depicting the dying days of a certain kind of marriage. And after Alyosha disappears, it becomes another kind of procedural, with interrogations and manhunts. And yet, where Hollywood would look to mine enormous amounts of tension from this premise, Zvyagintsev is only interested in taking his title to its most logical extreme. The result is positively chilling.
Germany's Valeska Grisebach must be among the fastest of filmmakers. Her previous film, Longing, was released in 2006. Now, only ten years later, she is back with Western, which is about a group of German construction workers landing up in a Bulgarian village to change the shape of the local river. They speak of leveling, extending the natural embankment. They also speak of going shooting with a G36 and the Bulgarian way of saying hello to a pretty girl. Slowly, one man, Meinhard (Meinhard Neumann) becomes the focus. "I am here to earn money," he growls. But inside, he's a real softie.
Western can be seen as the anti-Deliverance. In that 1972 culture-clash drama, the cultures clashed till the end. Here, at first, the Germans tease a trio of Bulgarian women. Word quickly gets around. They become pariahs. But somehow Meinhard inveigles his way past the border. He starts talking to the locals. He gets invited to family gatherings. Slowly, we see him more with the Bulgarians than his own countrymen.
Grisebach's point may be that there is no difference — or at least, there shouldn't be. And that all it takes to know the "other" is curiosity, respect and empathy. The filmmaking is so pared-down — as with Longing, perched between documentary and feature — that there hardly seems to be a plot, let alone messages of such heavy import. But Grisebach gets into the heads of people we don't meet very often, and we feel their thoughts almost telepathically. And she puts on screen my favourite image from the festival so far: Meinhard having a quiet moment with a white horse, the plants behind him making dappled shadows on his back. It's like an advertisement for peace.
Watch the trailer of Western here –