Issue 41 (2013)

Vitalii Mel’nikov: The Admirer (Poklonnitsa, 2012)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2013

poklonnitsaThe Admirer is the twenty-third film by eighty-three year old veteran director Vitalii Mel’nikov, known for The Boss of Chukotka (Nachal’nik Chukotki, 1966), The Tsar’s Hunt (Tsarskaia okhota, 1989), and Poor, Poor Pavel (Bednyi, bednyi Pavel, 2003), to name a few (Bobrova 2012). Mel’nikov’s latest directorial effort (for which he also wrote the script) is a period romance drama fictionalizing the relationship between Anton Chekhov (Kirill Pirogov) and aspiring writer Lidiia Avilova (Svetlana Ivanova). Lydia is already married with children when she first meets her literary idol at a gathering hosted by magazine publisher Nikolai Leikin (Oleg Tabakov). Chekhov is impressed by her work and instantly taken with her. While their relationship remains platonic and is carried out mainly through correspondence and a few meetings, Lydia remains devoted to—and increasingly more obsessed with—the dying author, to the displeasure of her boorish and overbearing husband Mikhail (Oleg Andreev).

poklonnitsaThe Admirer was inspired by Chekhov in My Life, the real-life Avilova’s (largely discredited) memoir. Despite Mel’nikov’s avowed rejection of sensationalism, the film, which aims to represent Chekhov “as he appears in Avilova’s memoirs,” takes great liberties with the writer’s biography (Bobrova 2012). The viewer is led to believe that Avilova was Chekhov’s last love and patron, and that he actively encouraged her literary pursuits. The actual story, however, is much less romantic. Chekhov biographer Donald Rayfield calls Avilova the writer’s “most deluded admirer” (340). According to him, Chekhov responded to her infatuation rather coolly and saw no promise in her short stories (Rayfield, 1997: 341). This is hardly the stuff of daydreams, so it is understandable that a filmmaker might choose to embellish. Still, this begs the question, why sentimentalize such a minor, unremarkable episode of Chekhov’s life in the first place? After Joe Wright’s recent reimagining of Anna Karenina (2012) as an opulent Harlequin romance, the last thing Russian literature needs is another vanilla popcorn drama (doubly offensive, coming from a native director).

poklonnitsaTo make matters worse, The Admirer suffers from a relentlessly tedious, soporific pacing. Very few notable events occur on screen; dinner parties are held, clandestine meetings are arranged, letters are written, and in the meantime, almost all potential for meaningful character development is drowned in romantic clichés. The film creeps towards its predetermined ending with a leisurely, borderline torturous tempo. Despite lasting a perfectly respectable 102 minutes, it still manages to feel excessively drawn-out. There is remarkably little dramatic tension or conflict, with the exception of Lydia’s strained interactions with her husband. The characters’ private emotions, undoubtedly meant to come off as subdued, yet poignant, end up being primarily the former. The camera constantly lingers on faces, offering the viewer close-up after close-up of forlorn and longing expressions (usually courtesy of Svetlana Ivanova). If passions ever burn bright, it is impossible to tell, as the soft lighting, repetitive framing devices, and static cinematography dull the senses.

poklonnitsaThis general tedium is partially compensated for by Kirill Pirogov’s elegant and nuanced performance in the leading role. Pirogov, known to viewers both for his theater work and for his roles in Georgii Daneliia’s Heads and Tails (Orel i reshka, 1995) and Aleksei Balabanov’s Brother 2 (Brat 2, 2000), bears a remarkable physical resemblance to Chekhov, enhanced by the addition of carefully modeled facial hair and a pair of the author’s iconic spectacles. His convincing physical presence is complemented by his finely tuned depiction of a broad range of complex and oftentimes contradictory moods and emotions. Reportedly, during filming Mel’nikov repeatedly warned Pirogov to not turn the Russian author into a monument, but instead to emphasize his humanity (Bobrova 2012). The actor must have taken note, as he compellingly vacillates between shyness and brazenness, mockery and encouragement, reserve and forthrightness, providing the viewer with a welcome respite from Svetlana Ivanova’s stilted, melodramatic acting, as well as from the uninspired dialogue. His portrayal is most powerful and moving in the few memorable moments when the character’s private suffering and stoic resignation come through, such as his solitary coughing fits in the train car or his matter-of-fact attitude towards his impending death in the last hospital scene. While not a particularly convincing romantic lead, his Chekhov is an enigmatic, quietly tragic character.

poklonnitsaAs a period film, The Admirer does not disappoint. The atmosphere of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Russia is meticulously captured through the film’s mise-en-scene and costume design. A freezing newspaper editorial room where the characters’ breath forms clouds in the air, the obligatory bustling train station, a predictably messy maslenitsa celebration, and an elegant literary soirée turned drunken revelry capture the country in all of its turn-of-the-century disarray. The costumes (those designed for Avilova in particular) aptly represent, and imaginatively play with, a whole range of looks, from relatively modest everyday attire to ostentatious formal wear. Memorable touches such as the comically long feathers adorning the head of a brash poetess (Oksana Mysina) add a layer of playfulness to the film’s look.

poklonnitsaThe Admirer features several welcome moments of lighthearted comedy. The most effective counterpoint to the general melodramatic mood comes from Artem Iakovlev’s delightful turn as the heroine’s brother Alex, whose enthusiastic adoption of Leo Tolstoy’s philosophy boils down to little more than spasmodic bouts of declamatory pathos. Mysina, too, is refreshingly amusing as a literary socialite whose ignorance is matched only by her arrogance. Even Pirogov is given the chance to deliver a couple witty retorts, reminding the audience that, in addition to brooding, writers do occasionally engage in word play.

poklonnitsaHowever, the film is at its best when it abandons the snooze-inducing central romance to delve more deeply into the realities of domestic oppression and violence that Avilova (and many of her female contemporaries) struggles with behind closed doors. In a chilling scene, her husband responds to her suggestion of divorce by pushing her on the bed and taking her clothes off. As she lies there motionless, looking at the ceiling, the aspiring author asks Mikhail to “promise not to whistle in the study.” As the film cuts away from this quietly devastating episode, the representation of marital violence as a mundane occurrence leaves a bitter, lasting aftertaste—and provides a glimpse into what this film could have been, had it allowed itself to transcend genre clichés.

Mihaela Mihailova
Yale University

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Works Cited

Bobrova, Elena, “Posledniaia liubov’ neudobnogo cheloveka,” Rossiiskaia gazeta, 3 August 2012.

Rayfield, Donald, Anton Chekhov: A Life (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press,1997).

Sochiva, Tatyana, “Return to the Classics,” The St. Petersburg Times, 1 February 2012.

The Admirer, Russia, 2012
Color, 102 minutes
Director: Vitalii Melnikov
Screenplay: Vitalii Melnikov
Cinematography: Sergei Astakhov, Stepan Kovalenko
Composer: Igor’ Korneliuk
Cast: Kirill Pirogov, Svetlana Ivanova, Oleg Andreev, Ivan Krasko, Oleg Tabakov, Artem Iakovlev, Oksana Mysina, Svetlana Kriuchkova
Producers: Iurii Sapronov, Andrei Smirnov, Dmitrii Meskhiev, Olga Agrafenina
Production: Kinomelnitsa, Lenfilm Studio, RWS

Vitalii Mel’nikov: The Admirer (Poklonnitsa, 2012)

reviewed by Mihaela Mihailova © 2013