Issue 57 (2017)

Pavel Lungin: The Queen of Spades (Dama Pik, 2016)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2017

Queen of Spades Pavel Lungin’s new film Queen of Spades is an opera-themed quiet thriller, with a slow, suspenseful build to an over-the-top sensationalistic finale reminiscent of grand tragic opera. The film is loosely based on Aleksandr Pushkin’s 1834 tale of obsession, greed, and madness, while paying homage to Petr Tchaikovsky’s 1890 opera version of the same title.

In Lungin’s film, the setting is changed from 19th-century St Petersburg’s fashionable society to a 21st-century opera company staging a new production of Queen of Spades. Aging diva Sofia Maier (Kseniia Rappaport) returns to Russia after thirty years spent traveling the world as a renowned mezzo-soprano; she has come back to stage Queen of Spades, the opera which launched her career. The singer maintains her glamorous façade, but has fallen on difficult times: she has not had a role in years and is running low on funds. She takes her niece, Liza (Mariia Kurdenevich), under her wing, aiming to mentor the girl into becoming an opera star. Liza is mistrustful of her aunt, but glad to receive her attention, and accepts the role of Liza in the opera. Liza’s boyfriend, Andrei, a minor singer in the company, lusts after the role of Hermann, and asks Liza to arrange for Sofia to assess his voice. When the soloist singing Hermann falls ill, Sofia asks Andrei to sing the role as a stand-in, eventually giving him the role.

Queen of SpadesThese roles map easily to Pushkin’s characters: Sofia slowly transforms into the Countess, aging and focused on her past glory; Liza is, of course, Liza—downtrodden, neglected and exploited; and Andrei chillingly morphs into Hermann, his obsession with playing the role coming to dominate his life. St Germain, the French Count with the gambling secret in Pushkin’s original, here becomes Oleg (Igor Mirkurbanov), a casino-owner and financier of Sofia’s career. As the film progresses, Pushkin’s plot guides the action, although Lungin adds some twists, which keep viewers in suspense. Hermann’s obsession with winning at cards and, by extension, learning the Countess’s secret, becomes Andrei’s obsession with Sofia. Sofia’s addiction to gambling compels Andrei to try his hand at the roulette wheel in Oleg’s casino and, eventually, bet on cards. Gambling becomes linked with Sofia’s favors, emblematic of artistic success and validation in Andrei’s mind. In a departure from Pushkin’s original, but keeping with the motif of obsession, Andrei and Sofia enter into a passionate affair.

Andrei is the film’s focus, just as Hermann is the opera’s main role. Pushkin’s Hermann seeks to rise in society and requires money to do so; his obsession with learning the Countess’s winning card secret stems from his desire for advancement. Similarly, Andrei is obsessed with singing Hermann to achieve career success and fulfill his destiny. As the viewers learn at a delightfully awkward dinner party featuring the main characters, Andrei’s destiny as an opera singer is linked to his unique ability to shatter glass with his voice—a skill he acquired improbably when, as a child, he plunged into an icy lake and was declared clinically dead for several minutes. As he sets out to achieve his dream role, Andrei transforms into Hermann, even developing a gambling addiction and playing with the Countess’s advice (here Sofia explains the three cards from Pushkin’s story and advises Andrei to use them). Like Hermann, he wins twice and loses the third time, prompting a psychological break. Andrei is played by the eloquently expressive Ivan Iankovskii, whose intensity in the role is at first off-putting, but gradually the film catches up with his performance, and the final scenes strike a perfect balance of madness and obsession that borders on psychopathic.

Queen of SpadesThe film has been compared to Darren Aronofsky’s psychological horror thriller Black Swan (2010), and does bear some resemblance to that film, in its theme, denouement, and pervasive Tchaikovsky-based soundtrack. Black Swan focuses on Swan Lake(1875) and explores the ballet’s themes through a story about a ballerina’s psychological breakdown as a result of playing the doppelganger role of Odette/Odile. Similarly, in Lungin’s Queen of Spades, the themes of the artistic work (here the opera adapting Pushkin’s story) come to influence the lives of those starring in it, who increasingly take on the psychology of their roles. In both films, ambition and a push to achieve perfect artistry cause the main characters' psychological breakdown and even self-harm.

Queen of SpadesThe Queen of Spades represents something of a departure for its acclaimed film-maker. Lungin’s films often have a gritty and authentic feeling, focused on the minutiae of life as, for example, in his Taxi Blues (1990), or The Island (Ostrov, 2006, scripted by Dmitrii Sobolev). The Queen of Spades is heavily stylized, giving it a splashy, luxurious feel that at times reminds one of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013). This stylish grandiosity is in keeping with the film’s opera theme and aesthetic, and provides a matching backdrop for the melodrama happening in the foreground. It is apt that the film’s most memorable scene takes place on stage at the opera house with an absurd but lavish set featuring gigantic white roses and gravity-defying decks of playing cards displayed in mid-shuffle.

Queen of SpadesThe climax of the film—the last gambling session, the denouement between Sofia and Andrei, and the finale—takes place while the characters are dressed for their opera roles, both on and off stage. The on-stage and off-stage worlds blur throughout these scenes, which are the most compelling of the film. Hermann’s outlandish behavior in the opera—strangling the Countess (changed here from the original)—and the Countess’s over-the-top melodrama even seem more subdued and real in many ways than the film’s sensationalistic events set off stage. Andrei veers into madness and apparently strangles Sofia to death in her dressing room backstage; then, in the opera’s conclusion, confronted with Lungin’s clever take on Pushkin’s ghost of the Countess, he slits his own throat with a broken piece of glass. Sofia and Liza step forward to take their bows over Andrei’s prone body as his wound bleeds out onto the stage and applause fills the theater. 

In the end all three main characters survive the film, whereas in the opera all are dead by the finale. Intriguingly, the end of the film signals a metaphorical death and rebirth for each of them. Liza expresses hatred for her aunt and disavows opera singing as a career, but in the end has become Sofia. Sofia loses her voice, and with it the career that defines her. And Andrei loses not only his livelihood, but also his freedom.

Queen of SpadesA key focus of the film is on cycles of return, a point reinforced by periodic flashbacks that recall Andrei’s dramatic experience of falling through the ice as a child. This incident serves both to instill in Andrei his need to be extraordinary, since bullies drove him into the pond for what they saw to be his weakness, and to give the boy his miraculously operatic voice. This pivotal scene, reinforced by Andrei’s detail of his clinical death and revival, represents a break with his previous life and the commencement of a new one: that of an opera singer and extraordinary person. When Andrei faces setbacks—losing at roulette, getting bad news, seeing Sofia alive when he thought he had murdered her—the screen flashes to the pond. In the end, Andrei slits his throat and destroys his voice, returning to his former self.

Queen of SpadesThis cyclical theme is also evident in the stories of the other main characters. Sofia’s career had begun with the role of Liza in Queen of Spades, and she has returned to her hometown for the first time since leaving in order to stage Queen of Spades and play the Countess—a role often sung by divas of a certain age. It is revealed that Sofia had previously ruined the voice of her sister, Liza’s mother, and taken her place to launch her career. In this later Queen of Spades Sofia’s voice is ruined, and so her career ends as it began in a sense. Liza echoes Sofia’s life, although she resists. After her debut in the role of Liza, she goes on to become an opera star. Sofia creepily keeps life-size dolls of herself wearing her past costumes as mementos of former roles; our last glimpse of Liza sees her being taken under Oleg’s wing, examining a newly created doll wearing her own costume as Liza. In this sense, Liza has taken Sofia’s path, just as Sofia took Liza’s mother’s: the circle is complete.

Overall, the film makes for riveting viewing, and the scenes related to staging the opera are particularly enjoyable, both rehearsals and performance. The blend of theatricality and genre works well here. Lungin’s meta-opera approach successfully transitions Pushkin’s romantic fantastic tale and Tchaikovsky’s melodramatic opera into a psychological thriller, but one that stays true in perhaps a morbid way to the playfulness of its predecessors and the famous leitmotif of Tchaikovsky’s opera, expressed there in Act III: “What is our life? A game!”

Katherine Bowers
University of British Columbia

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Queen of Spades, Russia, 2016
Color, 120 minutes
Director: Pavel Lungin
Scriptwriters: Aleksandr Lungin, Pavel Lungin, Valerii Pecheikin, Stephen Walsh
Based on “The Queen of Spades” (1834) by Aleksandr Pushkin
Cast: Kseniia Rappoport, Ivan Iankovskii, Mariia Kurdenevich, Igor Mirkurbanov
Producer: Fedor Bondarchuk

Pavel Lungin: The Queen of Spades (Dama Pik, 2016)

reviewed by Katherine Bowers © 2017

Updated: 11 Jul 17