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Sergei Solov'ev, About Love [O liubvi] (2004)

reviewed by Julian Graffy©2005

                  

            

The first few minutes of Sergei Solov'ev’s film, beautifully composed and shot but slow and listless, indicate that in his rendering of Chekhov, Solov'ev has staked everything on the evocation of an appropriate atmosphere.  The camera pans slowly around a country house at night.  After 2½ minutes a shot rings out, waking a dwarf servant who begins laboriously preparing to embark upon his daily chores.  The screen fades regularly to black and the credits punctuate the action.  After 8 minutes the corpse is identified as that of a teenage boy.  After 9 minutes we learn the film’s title, About Love, or, to be exact, Anton Chekhov.  About and a cartoon of a blood-red heart.  

Two of this director’s enduring concerns—the emotional maturation of young people and the cinematic adaptation of Russia’s literary heritage—are thus united here. He began his career with two diploma short films, adaptations of the story From Nothing To Do (A Dacha Romance) (Ot nechego delat´ [Dachnyi roman]) and the comic play The Proposal (Predlozhenie), which formed part of the 1970 portmanteau film Family Happiness (Semeinoe schast'e).  This was followed by adaptations of Gor'kii and Pushkin, Egor Bulychev and Others (Egor Bulychev i drugie) in 1971 and The Station Master (Stantsionnyi smotritel'), the following year.  He returned to Chekhov by writing the script for Ivan Dykhovichnyi’s 1988 adaptation of The Black Monk (Chernyi monakh) and in the early 1990s he directed stage adaptations of the late plays Three Sisters (Tri sestry, 1991), Uncle Vania (Diadia Vania, 1992), and The Seagull (Chaika, 1993).  He also filmed Three Sisters, substantially unchanged from his stage production, in 1994.  

            Solov'ev’s sympathy for young people and their urgent inner life is legendary.  It is displayed in a number of key films from his middle period, One Hundred Days After Childhood (Sto dnei posle detstva, 1975), Lifeguard (Spasatel', 1980), Direct Descendant (Naslednitsa po priamoi, 1982), and The Wild Pigeon (Chuzhaia belaia i riaboi, 1986).  It received its most mischievous and anarchic expression in his two big hits of the perestroika years, ASSA (1987) and Black Rose Stands for Sadness, Red Rose Stands for Love (Chernaia roza emblema pechali, krasnaia roza emblema liubvi, 1989).  And in his last film before About Love, Solov'ev found a term to encapsulate this period in the lives of young people, calling it their Tender Age (Nezhnyi vozrast, 2000).

            About Love is not based on Chekhov’s 1898 story of that name, or even on the trilogy that it forms with The Man in a Case and Gooseberries, but on a trio of earlier pieces, the 1887 story The Doctor [Doktor], the comic play of the following year The Bear [Medved'], and the story Volodia (also 1887).  Solov'ev has described the resulting film as “not so much a literary ‘screen version of Chekhov,’ rather a retelling of stories which once struck me…  And I made a ‘screen version’ not so much of the novellas but of a certain light and airy [svetovozdushnuiu] atmosphere, which envelops all Chekhov’s works about love.”

            After another four minutes, in which a doctor begins a leisurely examination of the corpse, the title The Doctor appears on screen, accompanied by the address of the film’s website.  But readers familiar with the Chekhovian source will find their patience, already tested by the stately initial sequences, tried once more by this retelling.  The Doctor is the slightest of Solov'ev’s source materials, a six-page story on the manuscript of which, indicatively, its author noted: Will not go into the Collected Works. A. Chekhov. It is named for Nikolai Trofimovich Tsvetkov, who has been treating Misha, the 5-year-old son of Ol'ga Ivanovna, for an incurable brain disease.  But the centre of the story’s gravity is his concern as to whether he is the child’s father, something he repeatedly asks Ol'ga Ivanovna.  Assured that this is the case, he remains unconvinced, to his own desperate unhappiness.  Thus, The Doctor is a story not so much of love as of the inability to trust.

            

There is no mention in The Doctor of Ol'ga Ivanovna’s husband, but—in the first of several violences perpetrated on the Chekhovian originals—Solov'ev tells the tale as a memoir narrated by this invented cuckold, something he needs to do in order to connect his three sources.  So The Doctor comes over as an etiolated song of mourning for lost happiness, full of eccentric japes performed by somnambulist actors (Evgeniia Kriukova as Ol'ga Ivanovna, Aleksandr Zbruev as the doctor, Aleksandr Abdulov as the as yet unnamed hero), padded out way beyond the bounds of the fragile original.  There are tricks with cigarette smoke that mimics the new steam trains for the tragic child, who from the start is beset by debilitating headaches.  There are jolly games of billiards and magic lantern shows, with anachronistic pictures of beautiful women.  There is heavy symbolism with trapped and dying butterflies.  Only when the film is 25 minutes old does the doctor press his suit and the film acquire some real tension, imparted by direct quotation of the Chekhovian original.  But here, too, the point of the exercise for Solov'ev is the devastated reaction of the eavesdropping husband, who determines to leave his wife and his dying son (also unnamed in this version), and that day decamps to a hotel in town.  

            At this point our anaesthetised hero is transmogrified into Grigorii Stepanovich Smirnov, eponymous hero of Chekhov’s The Bear.  He is cast against Solov'ev’s favourite actress, Tat'iana Drubich, as the landowner’s widow, Elena Ivanovna Popova, recalling their performances as Vladimir and Aleksandra in Black Rose…  Solov'ev has also cast them both in the adaptation of Anna Karenina which he is currently making for Russian television, with Drubich as Anna and Abdulov in the role of Stiva Oblonskii.  Unfortunately, in this part of the film Solov'ev’s actors are being tested against memories of the classic 1938 adaptation of The Bear by Isidor Annenskii, with Mikhail Zharov as Smirnov and the incomparable Ol'ga Androvskaia as Popova.  In order to achieve a respectable running time of 43 minutes, Annenskii padded out his source material with an initial sequence of Smirnov sitting, drinking, and shooting in his room to the horror of his ancient female servant.  He also produced a great deal of theatrical business with props, with morning dusting, statues of cherubs, stolen meals, pot plants, and servants with weapons fashioned out of agricultural implements.  The film is sometimes heavy-handed, but overall it is exuberant, genuinely funny, and, with its full blooded and confident acting, in tune with the Chekhovian original.

            Like its predecessor, this new version of the play begins with a section in which Abdulov, now looking frankly like Zharov, sits in his hotel room, sings the romance Foggy morning, grey morning” (“Utro tumannoe, utro sedoe”), totes his gun, pines at his unbearable ennui, and calls for death, which fails to release him.  But when he remembers all the people who owe him money, we are ready to move into The Bear.  The dwarf servant Luka, played by Valerii Svetlov, whom we remember from the beginning of the film, does some morning dusting, borrowed again from Annenskii, though without Ivan Pel'tser’s frenzied enthusiasm for the task.  He tells Popova-Drubich that she should stop pining for her dead and faithless husband, and find a new object for her affections before it is too late.  At which point Smirnov-Abdulov blunders in, demanding to be repaid the money he lent the dear departed to buy oats for his horses.  The Bear brings some much needed vigour to the film after the tedium of The Doctor and Abdulov seems relieved that he can cast aside languorous self-pity, but the viewer finds it difficult to reconcile the cuckolded neurasthenic of the first story with the firebrand who has fought three duels over women, abandoned thirteen women, and been abandoned by nine women myself.  Again Solov'ev’s forced marriage of two Chekhov texts, which, though written in consecutive years, are fundamentally different in tone and intention, does serious damage to both of them.  Tat'iana Drubich is beautiful, like Androvskaia, has Androvskaia’s extravagant curls, and has even borrowed Androvskaia’s mannerism of repeatedly blowing the hair out of her eyes, but she lacks Androvskaia’s lighness and delicacy in the role, and, for British viewers, she is sometimes disconcertingly reminiscent of John Cleese’s dragon-wife Sybil in the legendary television sitcom Fawlty Towers.

 

There are also nice inventions: Luka, the figure who for Solov'ev provides the thread that links the film’s three episodes, is given to fainting fits and consequently required to walk around with one or other of his mistress’s large and beautiful fans.  And the portrait of the dead and errant husband, merely a photograph in Chekhov, grown in Annenskii’s film into an enormous portrait on the wall with absurdly large black mourning ribbons, is here a sketch of a nude muscle-bound hero that is to be placed on Popov’s tombstone.  But the whole is considerably more subdued than Annenskii’s film, the failure to go for broke suggesting either a lack of confidence in the material or a desire to bend this story to fit Solov'ev’s increasingly shaky thesis that all his source texts are texts about love.  

 

Volodia, the last of the stories, is also the most substantial of the Chekhovian sources and the one most identifiably about the experience of love.  In order to bring all his characters together for a dramatic denouement, Solov'ev sets the piece ten years later and has Smirnov, now happily married to Popova and living on her estate, inviting his former wife and miraculously restored son, now named Volodia, to visit them on the estate.  There Volodia has his fateful encounter with 30-year-old Niuta  (Ekaterina Volkova), a fellow house guest, the wife of the architect Brekolin, who is frequently absent in town.  Bored in her abandonment, Niuta wastes no time in seducing the 15-year-old Volodia (Kirill Byrkin), telling him that he looks like Lermontov and has something Circassian about him, and that a man of his age should be paying court to women.  Volodia, of course, is both physically drawn to the voluptuous Niuta, who chances upon him on her way back from swimming, all wet and décollettée, and confused and ashamed that this love is so different from what he has read about in novels.  All this is in the original, though without the directness of Volkova’s beauty, but it shares our attention here with references back to the steam train games of the first story and with Solov'evian inventions involving an Edison phonograph and discussion of the coming of the aeroplane.  After their fateful nocturnal encounter, orchestrated with a raging thunderstorm, Niuta gets up from the bed and, again quoting Chekhov, calls Volodia ugly, pitiful… an ugly duckling, words that are less convincing here than in the original.  Determining that what he has experienced is not love, just a sordid little intrigue, Volodia picks up the gun that his father had taught him to fire in The Doctor, places it in his mouth, and shoots himself.  In the story this scene had taken place back in their apartment, after he and his mother had returned to town, but for Solov'ev placing it here gives the film a satisfying sense of spatial unity, even if it does so, once again, at the cost of verisimilitude, having Ol'ga Ivanovna and her successor Popova cosily taking tea and gossip together while the boy broods and plots.  And so we return to our beginnings.  Doctor Tsvetkov examines the body of the boy who may be his son and the film ends by revisiting the idyllic scene of Volodia’s childhood holiday in France first glimpsed in The Doctor. About Love concludes with a nod in the direction of love’s fragility and evanescence.

            What have been the consequences of hitching these three works together?  Certainly violence has had to be done both to the plots and to the tones of the originals.  Smirnov has been introduced into The Doctor as a wronged husband whose character is at odds with that of the eponymous Bear. As a result, the story’s examination of the destructive effect of distrust in the mind of the doctor is downplayed.  Against all medical opinion, the child Misha has survived his mortal brain dropsy and become Volodia.  Volodia takes place on Popova’s estate from “The Bear.  But the artificiality of the linkage of this disparate material is repeatedly apparent, not least because the whole film is constructed as Smirnov’s evidence to an investigating official and yet the story Volodiais full of scenes at which he was not present and feelings that the dead Volodia could not have told him about.

The recent model for such an enterprise is, of course, Kira Muratova’s Chekhov’s Motifs [Chekhovskie motivy, 2002], which wrapped Chekhov’s little known 1886 story Difficult People [Tiazhelye liudi] around his tragic-comic 1889 play Tat'iana Repina.  Indeed, Solov'ev seems to acknowledge the primacy of Muratova by including in the first two episodes of his film brief scenes from the Orthodox wedding service that takes up most of the second half of Chekhov’s Motifs.  But in placing together two hitherto unconnected Chekhovian texts, Muratova was careful not to do major damage to their individual essences and, further, she revealed things—the use of ritual, a keen ear for language—that they had in common.  She did not introduce characters from one text into the other or change their names or behaviour.  Furthermore, by one small emendation to the play, making the mad woman who disrupts the service the daughter of one of the officiating priests, she drew the two texts together in a new concern with the relationship of parents with errant children.  Above all, she made Chekhov’s Motifs a Muratova film, a film that in its concern with such subjects as language, ritual, and difficult parents, as well as in its structural complexity, also stands in fruitful proximity to her own earlier work.  

What then makes About Love a Solov'ev film?  The depressing answer is that this new film is shot through with the mannerism he assumed for ASSA and Black Rose…  Solov'ev still cannot resist interrupting his narrative with inserts disruptive of verisimilitude which—pace certain Russian critics—it would be over-charitable to describe as postmodernist or Shklovskian/Brechtian alienation devices.  Each time an intertitle appears announcing one of the three novellas, it is accompanied by the film’s web address.  Ironically, since the site has not been maintained, clicking on its pulsating heart will take you only to Online Trading, “Adult Friend Finder Sex Personals,” or “Office Products Equipment Janitorial.”  At the start of the film, and then at regular intervals, we are treated to an interpolated text version of Astrov’s words in Act Four of Uncle Vania that those who live in 100 or 200 years from now will have found a means to be happy.  Half-way through The Bear we get a cartoon Chekhov and another, scarcely legible, quotation.  Later in the same novella we see a scene on the set, where the filming is allegedly disrupted by heavy rain and Volodia is taught how to use a Walkman.  In Volodia, Niuta refers anachronistically to seeing a Chekhov play at the Moscow Arts Theatre, in which a character referred to seeing the sky in diamonds.  Though she cannot remember whether the play was Uncle Vania or Three Sisters, she does recall seeing the author—tall, with a walking cane—and his actress wife.  Later there is another Chekhov intertitle with a flowing text in Russian and English giving us a distillation of the great writer’s thoughts on love.  And finally, when Volodia has been spurned by Niuta, he switches on his Walkman and listens to John Lennon singing Happiness is a Warm Gun.  All of these inserts display Solov'ev’s disabling lack of faith in his sources and in his capacity to make a film about love that will speak across generations without having its relevance underlined so crassly.  In the late 1980s, when Soviet cinema and young Soviet people were emerging from decades of conformity and repression, the high jinks of ASSA and Black Rose…, orchestrated by such giants of youth culture as Viktor Tsoi and Boris Grebenshchikov, may have seemed daring and liberating.  Now, fifteen years later and in a setting which they can only undermine, they speak of an enfant terrible bereft of new ideas and forced into the desperate self-plagiarism of a pasticheur.

            There are undeniable strengths to About Love.  Iurii Klimenko’s cinematography is fluid and subtle.  The production design by Aleksandr Borisov and Sergei Ivanov is beautiful and evocative.  Andrei Golovin’s music is memorable and sometimes haunting, and the boy actors (Kostia Veshchunov and Kirill Byrkin) bring genuine feeling to the character of Volodia.  Alas, this is not enough, since Solov'ev himself seems unsure what he wants from a film that is both heavily theatrical (it is set in a small number of recurring interiors) and astonishingly undisciplined, and in which his adult actors perform like puppets dangling from their  torpid master’s strings. 

Julian Graffy, University College, London

 


About Love [O liubvi] (Russia, 2004)

Colour, 112 minutes

Directed: Sergei Solov'ev

Script:  Sergei Solov'ev, based on Chekhov’s stories “The Doctor and Volodia, and the play The Bear

Cinematography: Iurii Klimenko

Production Design: Aleksandr Borisov, Sergei Ivanov

Costume Design: Natal'ia Ivanova

Music: Andrei Golovin, the song Happiness is a Warm Gun by the Beatles, and Russian romances

Cast: Aleksandr Abdulov, Evgeniia Kriukova, Aleksandr Zbruev, Tat'iana Drubich, Ekaterina Volkova, Kirill Byrkin, Kostia Veshchunov, Valerii Svetlov

General Producer: Sergei Solov'ev

Executive Producer: Aiken Kuatbaeva

Production: Mosfil'm, Studio Krug, Studio SAS, Vneshekonombank, The Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation


Sergei Solov'ev, About Love [O liubvi] (2004)

reviewed by Julian Graffy©2005

15/04/05