Issue 50 (2015)
Vera Glagoleva: Two Women (Dve zhenshchiny, 2014)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2015
“Boredom cannot be concealed. Anything else, yes, but never boredom.”
Turgenev, A Month in the Country (1850)
Turgenev’s A Month in the Country takes place on a country estate over four days in the early 1840s. The play went through two redactions between 1848 and its publication in 1850; initially titled The Student and, later, Two Women, Turgenev settled on A Month in the Country in order to please censors who objected to its moral content. The play’s heroine, Natal’ia Petrovna, is nearing thirty and is bored by life with her husband (Arkadii Sergeevich Islaev) and young son on their family estate. She passes the time stoking the romantic attentions of Mikhail Rakitin, a longtime family friend and her faithful admirer. When a handsome new tutor, Nikolai Beliaev, arrives from Moscow, both Natal’ia Petrovna and her teenage ward, Vera, are taken with him. Natal’ia Petrovna considers marrying Vera off to a much older man to rid herself of competition for Beliaev; she then confesses her love to him and tries to make things right with Vera. By the end of the fifth act, Beliaev, Rakitin, and Vera—along with others who once surrounded Natal’ia Petrovna—have fled the estate. The dejected heroine remains with her husband, their son, and her mother-in-law in the humdrum setting that led her to search for romantic diversion in the first place.
Turgenev’s play did not premiere until 1872, and it took even longer before it was performed with any regularity in Russia. Four years after he completed it, Turgenev himself commented that A Month in the Country “is clearly not fit for the stage.” But is the play fit for film? At the textual level, the dialogues of Glagoleva’s adaptation are taken nearly word-for-word from Turgenev’s original. One reviewer said about the film: “it is not an auteur version of a classic, but a verbatim transposition of the text into cinematic language” (Anon 2014). Two Women is at times shockingly faithful to the play; one can even follow along with the text, noting the moments where scene changes and clever editing take the place of missing or shortened dialogue. However, the film does omit nearly all the play’s externalized interiorities: that is, the lengthy soliloquies through which characters reveal their feelings and struggles to the audience, usually following important turns and revelations in the plot. Glagoleva, who is known to the Russian public primarily as an actress, has stated that “theatrics” like soliloquies are “not necessary for film” (Pozina and Karmunin 2015).
In Two Women, Glagoleva sheds light on interiority not through soliloquies, but through the use of archetypal symbols that she weaves through the narrative. One such symbol is a small glass terrarium with an iris inside. In the film’s opening shots we see Rakitin (portrayed by English actor Ralph Fiennes) returning to the Islaev estate after a trip, and the terrarium is included among his luggage. The iris flowers push up against the glass lid, seeking sunlight and attempting to break free from their confinement. In Anatolii Efros’ staging of A Month in the Country at the Theatre on Malaya Bronnaya in 1977, the center stage was dominated by a wrought-iron summerhouse that functioned as both a cage and a clock, simultaneously signaling confinement and the passage of time. “To the side are two toy carriages, one even with a ragdoll coachman, but neither with horses. They are going nowhere, for everything is frozen, and only time moves” (Kagarlitsky 1979). Towards the end of Glagoleva’s Two Women, the camera again pauses on the terrarium: it is smashed open and the iris lay crushed on the floor.
One of the most obvious changes from text to celluloid is setting. Turgenev’s play takes place primarily in a receiving room or a partially enclosed porch overlooking a garden (with one scene in the actual garden); most of the action of the film is set in stunning outdoor spaces. The light is bright and white, in contrast to the “red rays of light that fall on the floor” of the porch in Turgenev’s play. The bright light in Two Women casts a golden glow on everything and everyone, giving the impression of a nineteenth-century idyll. The costumes and set design are superb, and the white, mounded dresses on Natal’ia Petrovna and Vera enhance the idyllic visual impression. However, unlike the genre of the idyll, the monotony of life in the country is stifling and in no way restorative. Turgenev’s eventual title is a comedic label to this frustration: the play takes place over four days, but it feels like a month, especially when we consider the comedic rapidity of the development of the action.
In opposition to the bright light that dominates the cinematography, Two Women uses the archetype of the rainstorm to heighten the dramatic tone. Natal’ia Petrovna’s confesses her love to Beliaev under a veranda during a downpour, instead of in the house as in Turgenev’s original. When Vera condemns Natal’ia Petrovna for her betrayal, she is standing in the rain in a soaked white dress. The rainstorm also allows for a clever injection of indecency to the film. In the play, Nata’lia Petrovna’s confession of love is interrupted by Rakitin. Glagoleva, however, lets the characters linger in this moment for an extended kiss before the camera cuts away. When we next see Natal’ia Petrovna, she is walking away from the veranda, adjusting the neckline of her dress. The rain has already stopped, signaling that some time—and most likely something improper—has passed between them.
While the film uses the space and beauty of the estate grounds to emphasize the possibility for freedom outside the walls of the house, the rainstorm forces everybody indoors and highlights their current absence of freedom. Natal’ia Petrovna is not the only character stifled by life in the country. Rakitin warns Beliaev that there is no freedom in love; Rakitin describes himself as “tied to a petticoat,” “enslaved, infected, and how shameful and oppressive that kind of slavery is!” Islaev is ostensibly free—he can travel and create, and is consumed for most of the film reviewing architectural sketches and overseeing a building project. However, by the film’s close it is revealed that even the powerful are subjugated by feeling: “Should I free her? Yes, free her! Only I will have to think it over.… What was I saying just now, about freedom? I would never live through it. I can’t live without Natasha…” He is not prepared to give his wife her freedom, assuming he has the power to grant it. The kite that Beliaev builds for the family is an obvious symbol of freedom, but he is not free either; he too is a victim of Natal’ia Petrovna’s love and whim.
If the internal locations of the play reinforce the oppressive mood of the Islaev estate, the outdoor spaces of Glagoleva’s adaptation are a paradox—a challenge directed to the viewer and to the genre itself. There is always something happening on the estate: servants labor, neighbors pay visits, dogs trot by, and couples stroll on the grounds. The romantic constellation of Turgenev’s play is believable only under conditions of severe boredom, and this is what lends the play its comic undertones—it is, after all, “a comedy in five acts,” although Turgenev would later clarify that “it is not a comedy proper, but a dramatic work [povest’ v dramaticheskoi forme].” Unfortunately, with the removal of the monologues from the script, all traces of comedy have been lost from Glagoleva’s adaptation. This is particularly apparent in the character of Doctor Shpigel’skii, who does demonstrate agency in Turgenev’s play. There he gives a lengthy and detailed account of his views on aristocrats to Lizaveta Bogdanova, the governess to whom he has just proposed. “If I didn’t have any need of these people, I wouldn’t even look at them. … Do you think I don’t see right through [Natal’ia Petrovna]?” “They think that nobody will ever catch them. But oh how they are wrong! They too are mortals, just like we sinners are!”
Shpigel’skii’s confession is cut to a few lines in the film, although both texts manage to pose the same overarching question: is it truly a lack of freedom, or just laziness, that ails the characters? Beliaev and Rakitin both admit to laziness, and Shpigel’skii tells Natal’ia Petrovna that she must go on more walks to keep her health intact. Natal’ia Petrovna’s plea for Vera’s forgiveness can serve as a tagline for the characters’ misery in complacency: “It was all outside my power.”
Clarence Tsui has attacked Two Women as “an excessively affected period drama [sic]” that is “at best a piece of dated heritage cinema, and at worst cliché-ridden pomp”—“a heavy-handed melodrama that suffocates the characters and, in turn, the cast and finally the whole film” (Tsui 2014). In response to negative critiques like Tsui’s, the viewer may wonder why Glagoleva did not choose to update the setting of the play while keeping the original dialogue that was so important to her vision, for instance in the style of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet (1996) or Vladimir Mirzoev’s Boris Godunov (2011). Casting Fiennes in the role of Rakitin may have been one attempt to reach a modern and even international audience, but the dubbing of a Russian voice over his own in post-production lends a strange and alienating quality to his character that is not present in the play. For Glagoleva, modernized literary adaptations pose a significant marketing challenge to the director: “There are relatively few successes—when classical literature is placed in the present—because there is an obvious difference between what the heroes experienced then and now” (Pozina and Karmunin 2015). The problem with a period piece like Two Women is that the opposite can also be said to be true: the audience is modern even if the text is not, and thus it is unlikely that the general public will be sustained alone by Turgenev’s “endlessly beautiful” language, as Glagoleva described it (Pozina and Karmunin 2015). Two Women is most likely to find a lasting audience among period-piece enthusiasts and also school teachers, as its faithfulness to the text and absence of bedroom scenes, as one reviewer noted, make it especially suitable for screening in a Russian literature class (Anon. 2014).
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Anon. 2014. “Vera Glagoleva i Raif Fains predstavili fil’m ‘Dve zhenshchiny,’” Mir24 TV 8 December.
Kagarlitsky, Yuri and Boris. 1979. “A Month in the Country,” Theatre Journal 31.2: 249–51.
Pozina, Anna and Oleg Karmunin. 2015. “Turgenev’s Language is Endlessly Beautiful,” Russkiy Mir Foundation, 28 August. Original publication in Izvestiia, “Vera Glagol’eva. Turgenev daet akteru ogromnye vozmozhnosti” (28 August)
Tsui, Clarence. 2014. “‘Two Women’ (‘Dve Zhenshchiny’): Vladivostok Review,” The Hollywood Reporter 18 September.
Turgenev, Ivan.  “Mesiats v derevne,” Lib.ru
Two Women (Dve zhenshchiny), Russia, France, Latvia, Great Britain, 2014
Color, 98 minutes
Director: Vera Glagoleva
Script: Svetlana Grudovich and Ol'ga Pogodina-Kuzmina, with the assistance of Vera Glagoleva; based on A Month in the Country (Mesiats v derevne) by Ivan Turgenev
Cinematography: Gints Berzins
Production Design: Elena Zhukova and Olg'a Arkhipova
Composer: Sergei Banevich
Costumes: Elena Luk'ianova
Editing: Aleksandr Amirov
Cast: Anna Astrakhantseva, Ralph Fiennes, Aleksandr Baluev, Anna Levanova, Nikita Volkov, Sylvie Testud, Bernd Moss
Producer: Natal'ia Ivanova
Production: Khorosho Production, CVI Group, Rezo Productions, and Jura Podnieka Studios
Vera Glagoleva: Two Women (Dve zhenshchiny, 2014)
reviewed by Alyssa DeBlasio© 2015