Issue 31 (2011)

Vadim Dubrovitskii: Ivanov (2010)

reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2011

ivanovMost students of Russian literature, or devotees of the stage, grow up knowing that Anton Chekhov wrote four major plays, which revolutionized the world stage, as well as some farces and other juvenilia. Amongst this last category is Ivanov, the basis of 50-year-old Vadim Dubrovitskii’s feature film. Ivanov was Chekhov’s first four-act play, and he wrote it in a mere ten days in 1887. Although he was dissatisfied with aspects of the play and its first staging at the Korsh Theater, it fared reasonably well and was revised for a successful run in St Petersburg in 1889. Later critics have tended to concur with Chekhov’s own negative appraisal of the play: Michael Frayn has dubbed it ‘possibly the most lowering thing Chekhov ever wrote’. Despite this view, the play has recently received renewed attention and respect: the Almeida production starring Ralph Fiennes (1997) and show with Kenneth Branagh in the title role (2008) gained considerable acclaim.

Dubrovitskii’s own background is fittingly primarily in the theatre. He was born in Luninets in Brest Province in 1960. In 1981 he graduated from the Leningrad Theater Institute (LGITMiK); in 1996 he founded his own theatre company, and has for many years organized theater and music festivals, though this is his directorial debut.

ivanovThe rather theatrical (as in “stagey”) nature of Ivanov is perhaps what drew the director to choose this play for his debut. It has to be said that in reading the play afresh, and watching this screen adaptation, one wonders why the film was made, though it is not without certain merits. The film is subtitled “based on motifs from Chekhov’s play.” Despite this claim, it is very faithful to the original. The story centers around the life and death of its title character.  Once, allegedly, an idealistic and energetic young man, he is now deep in despondency and eventually commits suicide. The film opens on his ramshackle estate, where we find the hero unhappily married to Anna, who had been Sarah Abramson, before she abandoned her Jewish faith, family and name five years earlier. It never becomes clear whether Ivanov had married her for love, or, as local gossip has it, to get his hands on her dowry, which in any case never materialized once her family disowned her. Either way, he is distinctly out of love now, and is turning his attention to pretty, blonde Sasha, the twenty-year-old daughter of neighbors. Early in the film, we discover that Anna/Sarah has tuberculosis. Despite this, Ivanov drifts further away, and virtually abandons her. Between Acts III and IV (and the film is, in effect, also divided into four acts), she dies. In the final Act, Ivanov, despite deepening self-disgust and bitterness, becomes engaged to Sasha: again it is unclear whether he is simply after her money. In any event, the film, like the play, ends with his suicide, on their wedding day.

ivanovThe bare bones of the film and play are almost identical, which is one of the many problems with the film. Despite some opening out, some switching around of lines and entire speeches, for reasons that are not clear, and to no great benefit, the audience is always aware that this is the film of a play. The major changes from play to film do little to enhance the quality of the whole, or the cinematic nature of the screen version.

The main concessions to Ivanov being a film as such, rather than merely a film of a stage play, are in the setting. All fours sections of the film take place on quintessential fin-de-siècle Russian usad’by, a crumbling neo-classical affair in the first and third acts which are set on Ivanov’s estate; a much more “Victorian,” nouveau riche establishment in the second and fourth “acts” which take place at the Lebedevs’, parents of Sasha. At all stages of the film’s development, Dubrovitskii and his crew have made clear efforts to open out the play for the film, which allows numerous slow long shots of autumnal woods and forlorn lakes, which adds to the overall air of ennui and angst, which are the dominant tones of the film. There are also some set pieces invented for the film, which do give a more cinematic and lively feel to the mise en scène. Notable among these are the firework display on the Lebedev estate which ends the film’s second section, and a scene in a barn on Ivanov’s estate between the hero and Sasha, which has some modest nudity, but a sensuous rather than sexual effect, which is somewhat vitiated by the torrential rain that drenches the would-be lovers. Finally, the film ends with the actual wedding of Ivanov and Sasha, after which the hero shoots himself. In the play he commits suicide before the nuptials are concluded; that he would wait until after the ceremony before doing the deed seems distinctly bizarre and improbable. Moreover, the oddness of these moments is exacerbated by the fact that the wedding and even the suicide are staged as a puppet-show! The puppets, it has to be said, are remarkably life-like but the pantomime resonance ill befits what should be an essentially tragic moment.

ivanovPerhaps the most significant change from the play is the introduction of a completely new character, a iurodivyi, played by Valerii Zolotukhin. This person roams Ivanov’s estate looking ruminative, pensive, and very dishevelled. He is clearly meant to be offering some dumb-show commentary on the idiocy and aimlessness of Ivanov’s condition. However, because it is precisely a dumb show, it is hard to know why he is in the film at all.

At 170 minutes this is a very long film, which remains very faithful to the ethos of Chekhov’s early play. Ivanov emerges as the superfluous man nec plus ultra. However, partly because we never know whether he is a crook or just a defeated man, it is hard to care much about his life and death. Serebriakov does his best to look moody and tormented but is unable to rescue the character from the cliché. All the acting is perhaps more theatrical than cinematic though Galina Bob is touching as the caring but puzzled Sasha. The Jewish theme is not properly developed.

Clearly, Ivanov was not Chekhov’s early masterpiece. The film version sadly does little to raise our estimation of the work. For those with nearly three hours to spare and who like watching moody Russians being bored and/or tormented on decaying estates, this will be an enjoyable experience. However, for most viewers interested in the cinema, rather than the theatre, Ivanov does not have a great deal to offer.

Joe Andrew
Keele University

Comment on this review on Facebook

Ivanov, Russia, 2010
Color, 170 minutes
Director: Vadim Dubrovitskii
Script: Mikhail Bartenev, Vadim Dubrovitskii
Cinematography: Vadim Semenovykh
Music: Aleksei Shelygin
Cast: Aleksei Serebriakov, Anna Dubrovskaia, Eduard Martsevich, Ivan Volkov, Vladimir Il’iin, Valerii Zolotukhin, Bogdan Stupka, Ekaterina Vasil’eva, Galina Bob, Ol’ga Volkova
Producer: Vadim Dubrovitskii
Production: Teatral’naia kompaniia Vadima Dubrovitskogo

Vadim Dubrovitskii: Ivanov (2010)

reviewed by Joe Andrew © 2011

Updated: 12 Jan 11