BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE DUEL

By • Jun 8th, 2011 •

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Approximately thirty seconds into watching Dover Koshashvili’s film of Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, my husband Mark turned to me and said, “This sure looks like Chekhov!” I had to agree. On the screen a few men in officer’s uniforms were carousing on a dark porch, to the accompaniment of a cacophonous trumpet. They were performing a drunken game of William Tell, only in reverse, throwing apples at Laevsky (Andrew Scott), who was holding two knives in the air. When he succeeded in impaling the apples, everyone applauded and drank vodka. As it turned out, this scene did not come straight out of Chekov’s novella, but it was key to establishing the tone of the film and the plight of its antihero. Recklessness, drunkenness, hilarity, discontent, hysteria, uselessness. Back in college, my professor of Russian literature had a favorite saying, which he attributed to Chekhov. “You live badly, my friends,” our professor would say, and because it was drama school, he would take on the character of Chekhov, the wise country doctor, shaking his head and smiling mournfully as he leveled this reprimand at humanity.

Koshashvili’s THE DUEL does a fine job of revealing the universal comedy that underlies man’s angst, while remaining faithful to Chekhov’s late nineteenth century milieu. In fact, if you are familiar with this prolific writer, you will have met some of these characters and situations, even if you’ve never read The Duel. Laevsky, a self-loathing and self-deceiving narcissist, is reminiscent of Vanya, in Uncle Vanya, of Konstantin Treplev, in The Seagull, or Andrei in The Three Sisters. Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), the pragmatic, slightly superior Darwin-loving zoologist, seems a lot like Dr. Dorn, in The Seagull, or Dr. Astrov, in Uncle Vanya. And the fact that THE DUEL is set in a provincial town (here, by the Black Sea in the Caucasus), while the main characters fervently wish they were anywhere else, is reminiscent of a longing that repeats in Chekhov, and is a prominent theme in all four of his major plays: The Seagull, Three Sisters, The Cherry Orchard, and Uncle Vanya. Although I guess it isn’t necessary to travel to nineteenth century Russia to find characters who are disappointed, dissolute, and disillusioned. If this story had been updated to the 1950s and moved to Connecticut, it would be mistaken for the work of John Cheever. But the delightfully specific design and art direction firmly establish this world at the penultimate moment of both the nineteenth century and the Russian empire.

In THE DUEL we encounter Laevsky having an intimate conversation with his friend Dr. Samoylenko (Niall Buggy) in a very public seaside café. His problem is intolerable. Two years earlier, he and his married paramour Nadia (Fiona Glascott) ran away from Moscow, and settled in this seaside town, with the intention of working hard and building an ideal new life (another persistent delusion of Chekhovian characters). Instead, he’s spent his time playing cards, drinking beer, and getting into debt–and now, he can’t stand Nadia anymore, and longs to run away. He is desperate for the money it will take to get out of there and implores Samoylenkov to lend it to him. In the meantime, Nadia, pretty, vain, and bored, has been toying with the attentions of other men, without giving any consideration to the consequences. The indolence and failings of these characters are tidily summed up by the filmmakers–Laevsky lying on a chaise with a handkerchief over his face, when he is supposed to be working as a government clerk, Nadia, trying on a fetching hat in front of a shop mirror, while the smirking clerk suggests that perhaps they can find a way to settle her debt without cash changing hands.

Although he is a doctor and a decorated government worker, Samoylenko is most concerned with cooking meals for his boarders, two strangers of very different philosophical backgrounds. In addition to the scientific, and social, Darwinist, Van Koren, who is investigating the fauna in the Black Sea, there is the Deacon (Jeremy Swift), a lazy churchman who has been posted to the town, and spends his days in prayer and idleness. Van Koren despises Laevsky, whom he has come to regard as a weak, yet dangerously insidious type of human being, who ought to be destroyed. Van Koren walks in on an argument–concerning borrowing money–between Laevsky and Samoylenko and impulsively challenges Laevsky to the duel referred to in the title. No spoiler alerts necessary, as I won’t reveal the outcome of said duel, except to say that the filmmakers do a great job of capitalizing on the tension, and the outcome is unexpected.

The screenplay, written by Mary Bing, captures the essence of Chekhov’s story, which, on the one hand, must have been very difficult because Chekhov’s omniscient narrator expends quite a few words explaining his characters’ internal ambivalences. This is something you cannot do in a film script, unless you use the (often deadly) voiceover. On the other hand, I should say that Chekhov as a playwright never presents more than the tip of the iceberg, pairing his character’s sometimes banal and sometimes bizarre actions with enigmatic and disjointed dialogue. Here Bing uses quite a lot of the dialogue provided by novella’s author, and, the actors use the slightly old-fashioned sounding idiom to good effect; their formal and sometimes melodramatic sentences at comic odds with their characters’ impulses and behavior.

The music, by Angelo Milli, which underscores much of the film, enhances the atmosphere without being obtrusive. It is orchestral, with strings and a minor-key Russian-folk-song feeling to it. It softly augments a character’s solitude, or adds anxiety and a pulse to tense encounters, but the filmmakers are wise to let it fade into natural sounds–the buzzing of flies, the murmur of the waves–rather than allowing it to take over. It’s been a while since I found a film score so pleasantly effective–thank goodness, no montage accompanied by a quirky, clever folk/rock song.

The art direction and the cinematography are first rate, the shots perfectly framed. The atmospheres–blazing seaside, stuffy drawing room, rainy, pre-dawn gloom–are palpable. The novella is set in a resort town in the Caucasus; however, the film was shot in Croatia. In his thoughtful review of THE DUEL (May 10, 2010) New Yorker film critic Anthony Lane was critical of the choice of locale, writing, “In Chekhov [the mountains] are craggy and hostile, a fitting backdrop to the dried-out souls who dwell below, but Dover Koshashvili’s film lingers on green slopes. They suggest fruition and escape. . .”

It’s true that the scenery depicted by Chekhov is forbidding and almost lunar, while Koshashvili’s is often verdant and swelling, but the meaning of the surroundings doesn’t suffer. Both sets of mountains are towering and Sublime creations of Nature, which dwarf and mock the petty sorrows of Laevsky and Nadia.

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