A hard, unhappy watch
Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin), a Russian couple in Moscow, are going through a bitter divorce. Both are already seeing other people and as far as they’re concerned their life together is already over. Only two things are keeping them in contact: the flat they share and need to sell, and their pre-teen son, Alexey (Matvey Novikov). Alexey’s feelings about the split are an afterthought, if indeed they’re a thought at all. Zhenya and Boris fight not about who will get to keep Alexey, but who will be lumbered with him as part of their new life. One evening, shortly after his parents have a huge fight, Alexey doesn’t come home. As days pass with no sign of him, his warring parents are forced together to find the child they very recently wanted rid of.
As you may imagine, Andrei Zvyganitsev’s film, nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, is a hard, unhappy watch, but it’s a riveting, unforgettable one. It’s a film in which the only person you care about is almost entirely absent from the screen, but watching his parents transform from selfish ghouls to, if not better people then at least people who recognise their failings, is profoundly moving. It’s a cold movie, set under a permanently grey sky and with long, chilled silences, but still full of, often unspoken, feeling. It punches you with huge emotional moments – none more so than Aleksey hysterically weeping as he hears his parents effectively say he is unwanted – and then lets them reverberate long after.
The Russian setting is vital, because this is not just a crime thriller but an account of what it’s like to live in modern-day Russia, a country that has incompatible values of a staunch traditionalism (Boris works for a company so conservative that he will likely be fired if they find out he’s divorcing) and a grasping, selfish need for everything that’s new and modern – better homes, better clothes, better sex, better than everyone else. It’s a place where it’s almost impossible to be happy, because what you have is not supposed to be enough. It’s a devastating drama about losing something you didn’t appreciate until you lost it, possibly forever.
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Starring: Mariana Spivak, Aleksey Rozin, Matvey Rovikov
Release date: 9 February 2018