The film follows Boris (Alexey Rosin) and Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) caustically battling their way through the dying throes of their marriage. One major bone of contention between them is their 12-year-old son Alyosha (Matvey Novikov): as the two embark on new lives with new lovers, neither has room for their unloved boy. As they hurl insults and consider a future full of boarding school and military academy, the gaze shifts to Alyosha, eavesdropping from the hall and silently screaming as he learns how his parents feel about him and what is to be his fate. Faced with a lonely and exiled future, Alyosha takes off and it is his disappearance that the film revolves around.
This silence is one of the film’s dramatic strengths. Zvyangintsev opens the film with harsh piano music that is both discordant and chillingly ominous. Loud music in the car drowns out Zhenya’s own frustrated screaming and the sound constantly shifts between a cacophony of sounds and completely muted moments. As with Leviathan and The Return, Andrey Dergachev was in charge of the score here and it is one of the key elements of the storytelling, creating tensions and imbuing emotion, yet it is the silence that packs such an emotional punch.
The film depicts modern relationships in a particularly unflattering light. The parents are self-absorbed, constantly on their phones and desperate to seek out the chance to start from scratch and act like the previous dozen years never happened to them. We see Zhenya spitting venom as she attacks her ex and then playing the smitten lover with her new partner. Boris has a new partner, too, and she’s about to give birth to their child. All of these people are role-playing, whether at work as the devout Christian or with their partners, they are playing pre-ordained roles. When Boris talks to his partner Masha, afterwards her mother mentions how she’s taught her to play her man. Zhenya’s new man has created an austerely elegant bachelor pad that holds no remembrance of his own parenthood.
And the problem is far greater than this small group of narcissists. When the police are called in to deal with Alyosha’s disappearance, the detective clearly states that they have no time to go round looking for lost boys. The radio is full of apocalyptic and paranoid tales and as the film progresses (events begin in 2012) we glimpse the horrors of the war in Ukraine. Zvyagintsev is a little too heavy-handed here: we don’t need to have Russia’s own unlovely acts so blatantly portrayed as we are well aware of them. However, there are some nice scenes of a decaying and decadent society, from the abandoned building where Alyosha played to the off-limits satellites slowly revolving, via selfies in fancy restaurants. The scene when the parents visit a morgue looking for their son is particularly harrowing and is something straight out of a horror movie, although it looks horribly real.
The film is full of juxtapositions: of silence and noise, of nature and the city, of childhood innocence and adult subterfuge, of the country’s past and its present. The depictions of nature and the Anthropocene are particularly powerful. When the film opens onto a snowy woodland scene, the camera takes us close up to the trunk of a tree. There is something of the fairytale in this scene reminiscent of Tale of Tales or even Disney’s Snow White, with the trees as magical and potentially threatening entities. Yet the spell is broken when Alyosha trips through the wood, picking up a red and white strip of tape. Attaching it to a twig, he is a bucolic artistic gymnast, swirling the plastic and eventually throwing it up into the branches.
Visually and acoustically stunning, what is horribly, tragically striking is how innocence is stripped away in a loveless marriage, and in a loveless state.