Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Lady with the Dog (1960)

Director: Iosif Kheifits                                  Writer: Iosif Kheifits
Film Score: Nadezhda Simonyan                  Cinematography: Andrei Moskvin
Starring: Iya Savvina, Aleksey Batalov, Nina Alisova and Pantelejmon Krymov

It would be interesting to know what Russian filmmakers during the Soviet era thought of the fact that all of their great literature centered around the bourgeois society which they had overthrown, and what their government thought when they wanted to film some of those stories. Though it probably doesn’t matter. Most of the characters in Russian literature are pretty unhappy, and it doesn’t take much of a stretch for a filmmaker to make it appear that it’s the society’s fault rather than any inherent defect in being Russian. Based on the story by Anton Chekov, the Russian film The Lady with the Dog is a perfect example of this as Kheifits emphasizes a certain hollow decadence in the film that doesn’t exist in the original.

The story begins in a resort in Yalta by the sea, wealthy vacationers bored and unhappy until Iya Savvina shows up with her dog and gives them something to gossip about. Aleksey Batalov at first seems utterly uninterested in the new arrival until she sits down next to him at dinner. This is quite different from the story where he knows she is married and is intent on having an affair with her right from the start. But the lack of internal dialogue seems to be the only difference between the two. The first part of the film adheres to the story in every other way down to the smallest details, which makes sense as this would be a story that most Russians would have been familiar with. Where Kheifits takes liberties is with the middle section in Moscow, focusing on an extravagant lifestyle that has failed to make its denizens happy.

The production design is an odd mix of real exteriors, studio sets, and rear projection, though it is in keeping with the same sixties quality that was prevalent in Hollywood at the time, complete with entirely dubbed dialog and sound effects. What is incongruous about that is how it seems utterly oblivious to the realist moment going on elsewhere in Europe since the end of the war. Certainly the Soviet filmmakers studied American films and in attempting to emulate them did a terrific job. But at what cost? There’s a certain vacuous quality to Hollywood films, anyway, that it seems they would have wanted to avoid.

Even with all of that, it’s a wonderful love story, as painful as it might be to watch. Savvina is absolutely stunning, and one longs to see her luminescent blue eyes in color. Batalov is reminiscent of Ronald Coleman in The Talk of the Town, and has an easy, commanding presence on the screen. There are also some gorgeous, black and white exterior shots. Still, one wishes that writer-director Iosif Kheifits would have taken some more risks with the photography in order to achieve a more realistic look in the rest of the film. The Lady with the Dog is, however, a satisfying adaptation of the classic Chekov story and certainly worth seeking out and watching.

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