Writer-director Andrey Zvyagintsev has emerged over the past decade as the agonised conscience of Putin’s Russia, uniquely attuned to the state’s hypocrisies and the follies of his fellow man. After a run of critically admired yet underseen dramas – 2003’s The Return, 2007’s The Banishment and 2011’s Elena – Zvyagintsev made a major advance in 2014 with Leviathan, an electrifying cautionary tale that used a property dispute to illustrate the ability of the unfeeling system to crush an individual life.

Loveless (★★★, 15, 127 mins), a strong contender for this year’s Foreign Film Oscar, offers a still bleaker vision: a story of extreme self-interest and the world’s ghastliest divorce. It makes Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage look like Terry and June.

Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are recognisable modern professionals, caught up in their own lives, careers and phones. Their separation is a given; only the future of their ill-tended 12-year-old Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) is unclear. To appease her new partner, Zhenya insists that Boris should have custody. Boris, tending a heavily pregnant mistress, considers childrearing a mother’s responsibility.

An erstwhile status symbol recast as excess baggage, Alyosha has other ideas. One afternoon he vanishes, uniting warring guardians in a search-and-rescue quest that might, in a Hollywood movie, be considered a prelude to a cheesy end-of-reel reconciliation. In Zvyagintsev’s more fatalistic cinema, it entails a journey to the end of the world.

One reason Loveless draws us so deep into its chilly and unforgiving web is Zvyagintsev’s constant redefinition of these emotionally frozen characters. It feels apt that Zhenya’s inquiries should lead her back to her mother’s shack, where we intuit exactly whence her slaphappy parenting style derives. The approach reminded me of that of Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian film-maker behind 2011’s lacerating A Separation.

Cold comforts are all we’re getting here: we’re watching another family being dismantled under dishwater-grey skies, a scenario that opens on to the lower depths of human nature, and heads south from there. Still, that rigour remains valuable as an alternative to modern cinema’s glib frivolities, as does Zvyagintsev’s whistleblower-like ability to communicate internalised disquiet by using snatches of television and radio commentary layered into the action. One clip suggests 2012 – the year Putin ascended to power (again). By the time the coda has referenced the Ukraine conflict, Loveless has succeeded in getting shivering viewers to wonder: what else has been lost hereabouts of late?

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