Boris and Zhenya loathe each other, and chances are you will loathe them too. She spends every moment in his presence lashing him verbally; he absorbs every blow with a sluggard's indifference. They have a young son that neither wants or cares about.
Their ruin of a marriage (to call it "unhappy" would be optimistic) is on cruel, unvarnished display in "Loveless," the fifth feature directed by the gifted Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev, who examines their household in the manner of a pathologist performing an autopsy.
Pathologies of every sort abound in this corrosive and hypnotic movie, a story of domestic collapse that slowly develops into a withering snapshot of contemporary Russian malaise. That makes it of a piece with Zvyagintsev's earlier work, especially his Oscar-nominated 2014 film, "Leviathan," an intimate family drama that expanded into a seething, sweeping indictment of Vladimir Putin's regime, full of liquored outbursts, biblical allusions and satirical jabs at the unholy alliance of church and state.
"Loveless," which will represent Russia in this year's foreign-language film Oscar race, is a smaller, more self-contained picture, and both its human drama and its social critique feel more glancing, more thinly dispersed. If the proud, fallible characters in "Leviathan" largely held our sympathies, Zvyagintsev keeps Boris (Aleksey Rozin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) at a glassy remove, not inviting our commiseration so much as our contempt.
The two have already called it quits before the story opens, sometime in 2012. Zhenya, a beauty who runs a salon, is already dating a wealthy older businessman, Anton (Andris Keiss). Boris, bearded and brawny, has a desk job at an anonymous firm and a pregnant young girlfriend, Masha (Marina Vasilyeva). All that remains is for the soon-to-be-exes to rid themselves of their suburban Moscow apartment and their 12-year-old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov), whom they plan to ship off to boarding school until his inevitable military training.
Novikov is on screen for only a few minutes and has little dialogue, but that's all this young actor needs to make a devastating impression. Whether Alyosha is trudging home from school in the snow or glaring as his mother shows their apartment to potential tenants, his every glance and gesture bespeaks years of emotional damage. Few shots in any movie this year are more brutalizing than the one in Alyosha stands listening to every word of his parents' argument, his face frozen in the silent scream of the desperately unloved.
The next day Alyosha vanishes, though his parents are so busy and self-absorbed that another day passes before they even realize the boy is missing. There is a measure of satisfaction in seeing Boris and Zhenya shocked at having their wish — that their son would, in effect, disappear — granted so swiftly. Did Alyosha run away, or was he kidnapped? "Loveless" poses a still more troubling question: Is this a world that, in any meaningful sense, deserves its children?
The answer may be no, but the movie, written by Zvyagintsev and his regular collaborator Oleg Negin, finds about a hundred different ways of saying it. A visit to Alyosha's estranged grandmother (a terrifying Natalya Potapova) suggests that Zhenya, for all her failures as a mother, has made the best of a grim legacy.
Boris' office chatter reminds us that, in an ostensibly Christian culture that frowns on divorce, people often hold onto their spouses and children just to save face. Grim headlines about looming disasters in Ukraine and elsewhere blare from every radio and TV screen, drowned out by the vapid allure of Instagram feeds and other technological distractions.
Meanwhile, the police are too bogged down to do much more than cough up encouraging statistics about child runaways. Boris and Zhenya, their mutual hatred exacerbated rather than assuaged by this tragic turn, have no choice but to call on a dedicated volunteer squad to lead a search-and-rescue mission. The shots of the volunteers quietly at work yield some of the picture's most haunting and crystalline images, the camera slowly moving across gloomy wooded terrain and into squalid derelict buildings, tracing an arc from natural beauty to man-made entropy.
There is a grave majesty in these cold environs, brilliantly captured by Zvyagintsev's regular cinematographer, Mikhail Krichman. Since the director's arrival on the international scene with his remarkable first feature, "The Return" (2003), his feel for the metaphysical power of landscape — distilled in compositions and camera movements that can take your breath away — has earned him frequent comparisons to his countryman Andrei Tarkovsky, the auteur behind such cinematic monuments as "Solaris" and "Andrei Rublev."
Again and again, Zvyagintsev shoots his characters through car windshields, rain-flecked windows and other glass surfaces, as if he were trying not only to see through to their souls, but also to view them as projections — living representations of a society mired in cruelty, selfishness and apathy. Boris and Zhenya's marriage is both a symptom and a symbol of this problem, and their efforts to start their lives anew, casting off the child that binds them together, suggests a desire to plead ignorance of a bitter past and rush foolishly forward into an uncertain future.
Is Alyosha an emblem of lost promise, of a new generation doomed to be far worse off than the one before it? These questions may be rooted in Russian soil, but Zvyagintsev knows they are hardly unique to his country alone. Toward the end of this searing, finally overwhelming film, it's unclear which is the more disturbing realization: that Alyosha was lost long before he went missing, or that you don't really want him to be found.
(In Russian with English subtitles)
Rating: R, for strong sexuality, graphic nudity, language and a brief disturbing image
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles