When I came out to mom about 10 years ago, she was shocked, sad, and upset. Out of shock and sorrow, she said she never loved dad and the reason why she married was to get out of grandma’s pressure. She said she was going to divorce immediately. The movie’s unhappy couple reminded me of this conversation. They have a son, who cries in dark alone while the parents fight outside the bedroom. I’ve been there. Perhaps this is why I am drawn to films about broken family such as Squid and Whale (2005).
Although the movie felt very personal but still it didn’t seem just about family tragedy. The clean, crisp, cold, and often calm-and-still cinematography feels like this family drama is a big open gash of a much larger picture. Throughout the movie the director shows bits of radio and TV clips of political events in contemporary Russia, which was not that subtle, which reinforced this thought.
From the beginning, it is very clear that the child is from a loveless marriage and yet both parents, who are trying to get out of their marriage, have been both actively seeking love through extramarital relationship. With the child’s suffering and him not knowing about this behind the scene, the parents’ behavior look extremely selfish. We also realize that both parents think the child (or being in a family) is a burden or a tool for personal gain.
After the child goes missing, things change; the parents contacted the police and started looking for their son. We can see their distress although they keep arguing, blame each other, and say things like they shouldn’t have gotten married so that they didn’t have to conceive the child. It’s extremely cold. Probably never seen this level of loveless-ness and negligence of parents towards their children ever in films.
At the end of the movie though, the parents go to a morgue and identify a body to see whether the body is their son. It was not but both of them were in massive shock. Perhaps it’s because the heavily damaged body finally reminded them of the gravity of the matter; their missing son can turn up like this. In this brief moment, we see that both parents are not completely void of love. Yes, they hated their marriage and wanted to get out, but they still cared for their son. It’s just taken so much for them to realize it.
Fast forward to several years later in the future, it seems that both parents have moved on. Both have their own families from their extramarital relationship They don’t seem particularly happy though. Things seem normal and dull, the usual grind and ennui. At the end of the movie, we see the mom, Zhenya going outside to exercise on a treadmill. She starts running but quickly stops, looking exhausted. It seems that something is holding her back.
Assuming that the movie could be read as a big social commentary on 21st century Russia, this unhappy marriage and the loss of child seems to show a slice of general loveless-ness of modern Russia society, its desensitized reaction to people’s suffering, and its remarkable ability to just move on and getting used to the new normal. The brilliant final scene, where we see Zhenya’s something-isn’t-right face, implies that even though we try to move on and to ignore the past, we can’t never completely get over the trauma and tragedy we have experienced in that process. We try to shake it off but like the pale missing person poster of the child that is still stuck on the trees in the final scene, those memories of loss and tragedy still haunt us, perhaps forever.