A flawless adaptation of a literature masterpiece
Tintin | Winchester, MA USA | 08/05/2005
(5 out of 5 stars)
"The Lady with the Little Dog is arguably Chekhov's best short story, and probably one of the greatest short stories ever written. I realize this is quite a statement to make, but, notwithstanding my opinion, it has been also the opinion of countless literary critics since the publication of the story. The challenge to faithfully render it on the screen was indeed a daunting task. No less than Nikita Milkalko directed a film, Dark Eyes, featuring Marcello Mastroianni, Silvana Mangano, and Marthe Keller, which was based on the same Chekhov story, but maybe Milkalko wisely stayed away from a straight adaptation of the work. Film director Josif Heifitz, sure of himself, went ahead with the adaptation of The Lady with the Little Dog, an intimidating task, and succeeded. Of course, it did not hurt that Heifitz had been a great admirer of Chekhov's work since his childhood, and considered him his mentor. And of course, nobody without a velikaya russkaya dusha, a great Russian soul, could have rendered this work. To a Russian, his soul is something more than what a Westerner drags to church on Sundays and holidays. It is hard to explain the Russian soul, but as they say, I cannot tell you what it is but I know it when I see it.
Andrei Moskvin and Dmitry Meskhiyev's black and white photography is exquisite in rendering the atmosphere of the film, from its opening with the lethargic atmosphere of Yalta, to the snowy Moscow winter, and the pathetic, frozen atmosphere of its conclusion. Heitfitz' succeeds at reproducing Chekhov's style and symbols. As rapid cuttings distinguish the story's narrative technique, the camera often jumps to new scenes without warning. These cuts and jumps through time give a sense of the suddenness and unexpectedness of Anna and Gurov's illicit love affair, their falling in love, their settling into their new life, where much has to be improvised to maintain the relationship. Nature and the sea are important symbols in Chekhov's work and are portrayed in the film through lyrical long shots of the sea at sunset and the nearby hills at Yalta. The two protagonists sit silently, reflecting from their vantage point on the birth of their love affair, lost in the continuum of eternity.
"...Yes, when you stop to think, the whole world is wonderful -- everything, except what we ourselves think and do when we forget the higher aims of existence and our human dignity" says Gurov.
Heitfitz uses a variety of shots appropriate for each scene. Close shots and close ups emphasize the moments of psychological drama. The dialogue is, as in Chekhov, minimal, and never more than is necessary. Only few words convey the emotional complexity of the characters, preserving the intensity of their feelings.
As with Chekhov, the Yalta seduction scene in Anna's room, or any of the intimate scenes later on, is not shown. In that respect, Chekhov/Heifitz followed the Russian mores of the time, knowing full well that had Chekhov dared to innovate, it would have never passed the censor's pen. One also notes the great care taken with the period details, such as costumes, carriages, and the physiognomy of the actors.
The acting of the two main characters, Iya Savvina and Aleksei Batalov, is "on the mark." She is young, fragile, and innocent, and he, reserved, sophisticated, and aristocratic. Anna was Savvina's first role. She went on to appear in twenty-seven more films, her last one, Trotsky, in 1993. Batalov has appeared in more than thirty-four films, including Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears (1979). The other two lesser characters appear only briefly: Nina Alisova, as Gurov's wife is sullen, and Pantelejmon Krymov in the role of Anna's husband, indeed looks like a "lackey."
The lyrical music by Nadezhda Simonian, like the dialogue, is used relatively sparingly. A romantic love theme appears throughout the film with different tempi, underscoring the different situations, and in several scene transitions.
The themes are love, and the Russian society in the late 19th century. The Lady with the Little Dog is a love story between two people who started in life on the wrong footing, for whatever reasons, as most of us do. To understand the story, we have to speculate as to what had happened to these two characters before the story opens. She is an aristocratic Russian woman, and thus was destined to marry, for love if she was lucky, but most likely without love, just to fulfill her role in society, to raise a family and be the centerpiece of that family. So, Anna followed her destiny. Gurov is an older aristocrat, from the big city, a well-established member of the Moscovite society, married with children. He is a man, and therefore in (relative) control of his life, and as a man of his time, looks down on women, but at the same time, enjoys their companionship. For that epoch, at forty years of age, he is at the twilight of his womanizing years.
Anna and Gurov meet and start an intimate relationship, each for a different reason. Anna wants to escape her boring, dreary small town provincial life. To Gurov, Anna may represent one of his last chances, if not the very last, to seduce a young woman who will rejuvenate him, invigorate his life. His life is turned upside down, as the seducer is himself seduced, hoisted upon his own petard. But love does not rescue Anna and Gurov from their stale marriages, nor does it improve their lives. Of course, divorce at that time and in that society was totally out of the question. At the end of the film, nothing is said about their future. It would seem that their relationship may continue, with their occasional assignations in seedy hotels, a couple caught
"...like a pair of birds of passage. They've been caught and forced into separate cages." (Anna)
Neither of them is brave or strong enough to fly free,
"It seemed that in a little while a solution would offer itself, a new, lovely life would begin." (Gurov)
We can only speculate and draw our own conclusion.