Issue 33 (2011)

Anna Tchernakova: Death in Pince-Nez, or Our Chekhov (Smert' v pensne ili nash Chekhov, 2010)

reviewed by Chiara Natalucci © 2011

posterThe Leningrad-born Anna Tchernakova (Chernakova) trained as a director at the Film Institute (VGIK) in Moscow and has been a writer, film director and producer since 1992. Working and living in Canada and the United Kingdom, she has always kept close ties with Russia. Her credits include two feature films The Cherry Orchard (Vishnevyi sad, 1993) and Season of Mists (Sezon tumanov, 2008), an animation titled Sea and Stars (2002) and a one-hour drama, Last Summer (2000), as well as several documentaries.

Death in Pince-Nez (a sequel to her film version of The Cherry Orchard) was first shown in 2010 at the Moscow International Film Festival, as Russia was celebrating 150 years since the birth of Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. Anna Tchernakova was the first Russian director to make a film version of The Cherry Orchard, and for Death in Pince-Nez she decided to revive her earlier film and she reunited most of the actors from her previous film.

To summarize the plot of this film is paradoxically both an easy and complex task. Put simply, it tells the story of a Russian theatre director, Daniil Sorin, who returns to his homeland after 15 years abroad. In Europe he supposedly achieved some recognition for his work, therefore his company calls him back to revive a once famous performance of The Cherry Orchard, which he had directed some years earlier. He is initially doubtful and disgruntled by the idea, but then agrees: the mise-en-scène can start. 

pincenezAt a deeper level, the film is filled with allegories and metaphors, which are difficult to catch at first viewing. The genre is not obvious either: elements from comedy, tragedy, drama and detective are all mixed together. It is potentially a very interesting film reflecting, as it does, the theme of art from a diachronic as much as from a synchronic point of view. The centre of this reflection epitomizes Chekhov. But the overall impression is that Tchernakova somehow missed the point.

From the very beginning we are surrounded by many different elements reminding us of Chekhov and his work: the titles appear between the pages of the great Russian playwright's pieces; the director Sorin has got a black crow whose name is Uncle Vanya; the characters have names and surnames from Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard (Anya, Varya, Petya, Lopakhin), and Sorin is of course also the name of one of the main characters of The Seagull (but he could easily be associated to Ranevskaya, who comes back to Russia from Paris with a white coat and a scarf).

pincenezAfter welcoming home the director, we take part in an animated discussion between the company and Sorin, which deals with one of the main themes of the film: art, its meaning and its role within contemporary society. While the troupe tries to convince him to revive The Cherry Orchard in the same way he staged it 15 years ago, Sorin explains his point of view. He knows the Western dynamics and European trends of the theatre and argues that nowadays no one needs Chekhov anymore. Nowadays audiences go to the theatre expecting to be provoked, to be upset. Art changes with time and it has a duty to describe these changes.

Like the protagonist Daniil Sorin, Tchernakova has also spent time living and working abroad. Again like him, she returns to the big screen after a long break to revive a Chekhov-related work and she includes in her new version some of the scenes she shot 17 years earlier (which in the film represent Sorin’s recollections of his previous play). Like Sorin, she reaches into her past to portray an old work that she now wants to make new. The parallel between the two directors is clear. It seems that Tchernakova wants to speak about herself, explain her position and the difficulty of keeping up with changing times. There is a strange relationship with the past: on the one hand, the past is Chekhov, the master who created a new kind of theatre and with whom the directors inevitably have to confront themselves; on the other hand, the past is represented by their old works and the necessity to adapt them to the present day. 

pincenezAs the film goes on, Sorin starts to notice something strange and scary. Walking around the rooms of the theatre he finds a gravestone with his name and his picture; the date of death coincides with the date of the upcoming premiere of The Cherry Orchard. He notices some other strange things related to his death. He understands that someone wants to kill him.  Meanwhile the company starts to work on the new performance. Feverish preparations are under way, all the actresses want to play Ranevskaya’s role (because the actress who used to play that role is dead) and we understand that almost all of them are Sorin’s former lovers.

When it becomes clear that someone wants Sorin dead, the director has a long conversation with one of the actors, Lopakhin (the director of the company). This moment represents the film’s epiphany: in it Lopakhin reveals his plan to Sorin. Starting with the ancient story of Iphigenia in Aulis, who sacrificed herself to appease the Gods and allowed the sacking of Troy to happen, Lopakhin tries to convince Sorin to immolate himself on the altar of Art so as to become a legend and to reach eternal glory. It is the actor's idea that the director should die on stage during one of the performances.

pincenezThe film also focuses on the contrast between the past and the present, the old and the new generation. In the film in fact there are two directors: the 60-year-old Daniil Sorin and the young Ayvan (the English translation of Ivan), who is going to direct a performance called “I love Uncle Vania.” During a talk show he speaks of his new, personal (and slightly bizarre) interpretation of The Cherry Orchard. He represents the hope of contemporary Russian theatre, as the journalist says. Ayvan has a disrespectful, straightforward attitude towards everything that belongs to the past, especially old Soviet theatre, and he affirms that Sorin is now like “an old shoe,” something that no one needs anymore. And in this sort of comparison between two generations the first thing that comes into our mind is Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

In the end, Sorin has to face the brutal truth, and he asks his multitude of former lovers, his former wife and his son (who doesn’t even want to speak to him) the same question: “Do you need me?” When he understands the answer (which of course is “no”) he makes his decision: he is now ready to sacrifice himself for theatre, for Art. 

But in this rather confused film even the end is unclear and the door remains strangely open.  We do not see the main hero dying, as we expect, but we see him walking on a railway track, in the countryside. We see him reviving a part of his past, but then he smiles in a mocking way, turns his back and keeps walking on a path to nowhere, before vanishing into the poster of his first performance. 

pincenezWithout going into the details of The Cherry Orchard, we can establish that one of the main themes of Chekhov’s play is the effect that social change has on people. The Cherry Orchard addresses many different themes and suggests many allegories, but it describes particularly lucidly the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century. It represents the social changes that happened in Russia during this period. Some families belonging to the world of aristocracy have ruined their properties in advantage of the landowners, who see their origins in the serfs (emancipated only in 1861 under Alexander II), while the young generation dreams about a different future (brilliantly described by the words of the student Trofimov, who somehow anticipates the Bolshevik ideals). Tchernakova’s The Cherry Orchard appears in another very meaningful period, 1993, only two years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The words of Aleksandr Adabashian, co-author of the screenplay, confirm this: “The film is about how to survive during changing times, how far one can compromise, which things can and cannot be sacrificed. In short, the same questions that torment Chekhov’s characters.”

The intention of Death in Pince-Nez is interesting, but sadly Tchernakova fails to fulfill the promising potential. She tries to address a myriad of issues but in the end does not really tackle any of them. She only alludes, sketches them. Although the acting and directing are fine, the plot is too nebulous and less exhaustive. Much else about this film remains to be explored. What does she really want to say? Perhaps that sacrifice is the only way of surviving? But then again the main idea of the film—a discussion about art and its role within a constantly evolving society—is something that can never be solved completely.

Chiara Natalucci

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Death in Pince-Nez or Our Chekhov, Russia, 2010
105 mins, color
Director: Anna Tchernakova (Chernakova)
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Adabashian, Anna Tchernakova
DoP: Aleksandr Kariuk
Music: Gavin Bryars
Cast: Iurii Stoianov, Alena Babenko, Sergei Bezrukov, Elena Drapeko, Aleksandr Feklistov, Evdokiia Germanova, Aleksandr Grave, Aleksandr Shpagin, Aleksandr Adabashian
Producers: Stanislav Nikolaev, Anna Tchernakova
Production: Merkator Media

Anna Tchernakova: Death in Pince-Nez, or Our Chekhov (Smert' v pensne ili nash Chekhov, 2010)

reviewed by Chiara Natalucci © 2011

Updated: 28 Mar 14