Issue 26 (2009)
Sergei Solov’ev: Anna Karenina (2008)
reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2009
In terms of the sheer number of cinematic adaptations, Anna Karenina ranks close behind Shakespeare’s Othello: by my count, it has twenty four screen incarnations, a vast majority of them produced in the US and UK, dating from 1910 to Sergei Solov’ev’s most recent venture, a television mini-series fused into full-length feature. This history, together with the fact that the version reviewed here is the English-language one intended for worldwide distribution, makes it impossible to map the film in easy terms of fidelity and tradition. As Christian Metz asserted as early as 1977, evaluating an adaptation against a literary “original” is a meaningless exercise devoted to clashing phantasms in the reader’s or viewer’s imaginations; Robert Stam, more recently, demonstrates that it obscures the rich dialogic set of relations between the literary and film medium (Metz 12; Stam 55).
Saturated with deep color and attempting as comprehensive a view of the nineteenth-century “loose baggy monster” of the novel, the movie communes not so much with the 1967 Soviet production but rather with the globalized genre of Masterpiece Theater on the one hand and, on the other, the Hollywood epic(the most recent Karenina of the latter type was released in 1997, directed by Bernard Rose and starring Sophie Marceau and Alfred Molina as Anna and Levin). What makes Solov’ev’s version stand out—and simultaneously, constitutes some of the more frustrating moments of viewing it—is the attempt to do something new with film form and language.
Just like literary fidelity, the criterion of historical authenticity haunts all period dramas based on “great books.” In terms of costume and sets, in fact, the film falls short: although lavishly appointed and panoramically filmed, the appearance of people and places seems overdetermined and occasionally anachronistic. The dresses, for example, look synthetic and machine-styled; the preponderance of the national flag in virtually all public places, including the skating rink, speaks more of the (post)-Putin than the Tolstoyan era; and poorly-heated nineteenth-century houses could not possibly support so many tropical plants in corridors and stairwells.
A far bolder engagement with the concept of period, however, redeems these details by making Solov’ev’s Karenina qualitatively different from its predecessors. The film strives to recuperate cinema itself as a thing of the past, a notion often lost in the dichotomy between a nineteenth-century literary work and the expectations of contemporary spectatorship. Rather than construct a so-called realistic rendition of Tolstoy’s narrative by using every innovative technique of continuity, the film reaches back to the structural and metaphorical repertoire of the silent age. First—and this is an ironic moment when the dictates of the mini-series fit the experience of early cinema in a surprisingly complementary way—it condenses the eight-part novel into a five-part numbered sequence, each of which is given a descriptive title such as “Snowstorm” or, in the best tradition of dark romances, “An Awful Woman.” Apart from these titles announcing every part, the film actively uses intertitles: displayed as text quoted from the novel, they act as both explanatory devices and fillers. Intertwining reading and viewing is a particularly self-conscious gesture towards the problem of adaptation, but the effect is marred considerably when yet another device enters the fray. Adding the interjection of the narrator’s voice, through the patently latter-day medium of the voice-over, is a little too much (meta)text for the viewer who is just beginning to enjoy the experiment.
The process of visualizing the narrative is subjected to a similar treatment. While many films tend to use clever bridging techniques to reflect the frenetic mobility that makes Anna Karenina such a gripping, and filmable, story, Solov’ev seems to take a step back and restore its inherent fragmentation of space and time. The scenes, instead of flowing from each other, are reduced to vignettes that emerge from and fade back into darkness. Beyond just a nod to the structure of the silent film, they represent a brilliant appropriation of the conceit, built into the very fabric of the novel, of the contingent and transitory nature of illumination. Yet this device, which most intensely echoes the two related scenes in the book of Anna’s first journey back to St Petersburg and her last fatal leap under the train, is not built up into a consistent signature. It is undermined by too many instances when the film cannot resist the temptations of modernity, most notably in the iconic sequence of the suicide itself.
Like every other adaptation, this is the point when it feels as though the filmmaker can finally shake free from the shackles of realism and venture into experiments with representation. One wonders what the ending would have looked like had the admirable intent of periodizing cinema continued, because at the climactic moment it devolves into a sudden flurry of fancy camerawork and editing. Even if the switch is a deliberate attempt to throw the viewer back into time as Anna leaves her dream-world for eternal darkness, the ending stands in stark contrast with the structure and pace of the rest of the film.
From another angle, however, the frantic pulling-out of all cinematographic stops in the suicide sequence might be read as a commentary on the very process of visualizing words. Optics constitutes the overt metaphor as well as the medium through which Anna goes to meet her inevitable end. While most other directors tackle her last journey through slow motion—narrated in the novel through a sort of stream of consciousness, avant la letter—Solov’ev chooses shattered glass. Anna herself becomes fragmented into a thousand selves, while her voice and others’ are reduced to often incomprehensible echoes. This strategy establishes a subtle continuity with earlier scenes, when her first confrontation with Karenin and first sexual encounter with Vronsky are both framed by Anna speaking through a glass screen refracting and effectively dismembering her naked body. And yet like the voice over, instead of letting the connection play out its full potential in the viewer’s consciousness, the film literally floods it out with a plethora of competing visual and auditory devices: slow motion, soft focus, split frames, echoes, superimposition … the list goes on.
It is apparent that Solov’ev’s Karenina must have made for interesting viewing as a television series, and it stages significant interventions in the long tradition of adaptations of the novel. The contradictions outlined above are perhaps a result of attempting to accommodate too many of Metz’s “phantasms,” both of the world of words and of the world of moving pictures.
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Metz, Christian, The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977)
Stam, Robert, “The Dialogics of Adaptation,” in Film Adaptation, ed. James Naremore (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2000).
Anna Karenina, Russia, 2008
Color, 138 min.
Scriptwriter and Director Sergei Soloviev
Director of Photography Sergei Astakhov
Production Design Sergei Ivanov, Alexander Borisov
Music Sergei Kuryokhin
Cast: Tatiana Drubich, Yaroslav Boiko, Oleg Yankovsky, Sergei Garmash, Maria Anikanova, Alexander Abdulov, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Eduard Martsevich, Ekaterina Vasilieva, Liudmila Savelieva, Anna Astrakhantseva, Elena Drobysheva, Viacheslav Manucharov, Timur Glazkov, Sergei Kagakov, Liudmila Maksakova, Dmitri Persin, Alexander Rusnak
Producers Sergei Soloviev, Oleg Urushev, Konstantin Ernst
Production “Cinema Line”, “Iurga”, “First Channel”, with participation from the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation
Sergei Solov’ev: Anna Karenina (2008)
reviewed by Anindita Banerjee © 2009