Anton Chekhov 1890 (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: René Féret

2016 European Union Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

On April 28, 2015, actor/director/screenwriter René Féret died, less than a month shy of his 70th birthday. Féret is something of a mystery to moviegoers outside of France; his only directorial effort to have gained widespread distribution is Mozart’s Sister (2011), a fictional imagining of the largely unrecorded life of composer and pianist Maria Anna (“Nannerl”) Mozart, lost in the shadow of her brother as her sexist father pushed him to the forefront, and without a single extant work to her name. Mozart’s Sister was the first film Féret made about a famous person, but his directorial oeuvre is filled with autobiographical works and stories that revolve around families, and he frequently casts members of his own family in them. Anton Chekhov 1890, his final film as a director, encapsulates many of his interests with his distinctly French point of view.

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Unlike Nannerl Mozart, a great deal is known about Anton Chekhov, the towering Russian writer who is credited with helping to found the modernist movement in literature. His short stories were much admired by his countrymen, writer/artist/art critic Dmitri Grigorovich and legendary writer Leo Tolstoy. He was very close to his five siblings and mother, though he generally despised his Bible-thumping father, and brought the family under one roof when he became their sole financial benefactor. He was also a practicing physician all his life and loved a great many women while avoiding marriage until three years before his death from tuberculosis at age 44.

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Féret hews close to the facts of Chekhov’s life and chooses judiciously which elements to dramatize, beginning in 1890, when Chekhov is first approached by prominent publisher Alexei Suvorin to begin writing stories for his St. Petersburg newspaper, New Times, and ending with the first production of The Seagull in 1896. His approach to depicting that life gains inspiration from Chekhov’s naturalist approach to drama in his four timeless works, The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard.

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Féret’s fortuitous choice to play Chekhov, Nicolas Giraud, is a handsome, quietly charismatic man much in the mold of the writer himself, the center of attention for the whole family. When Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé) and Grigorovich (Philippe Nahon) come in search of “Antosha Chekhonte,” whose short stories published in a small paper startled them with their originality, the family bands together to keep Anton under wraps until they can determine the pair’s intentions. Féret establishes in this opening scene of high spirits the particularly close bond between Chekhov and his sister, Masha (Lolita Chammah), and his four brothers, who all sleep together, two in bed and the rest on the floor.

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It is Anton’s bonds with brother Nikolai (Robinson Stévenin) and Masha that punctuate the turning points in Féret’s drama. Nikolai is a talented artist suffering from tuberculosis whom Anton persuades to abandon his dissolute life in St. Petersburg to come home, where he will illustrate Anton’s works and be cared for properly. Nikolai has the idea that he wants to visit a penal colony on the island of Sakhalin to view its living conditions, and makes Anton promise to travel with him. When Anton fails to prevent his brother’s death, he decides temporarily to give up writing—Féret has Giraud melodramatically toss a couple of manuscripts into the fireplace—and undertake the arduous two-month trip to Sakhalin. The result is the sociological treatise The Island of Sakhalin, published in 1893-94.

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Masha appears to be the true love of Chekhov’s life. She copies all of her brother’s works to be submitted to his publisher, is his confidante via correspondence about his life in Sakhalin, and is the person through whom Chekhov meets Lika Mizinova (Jenna Thiem), a woman in a loveless marriage with whom he has an affair. Although Lika’s love for Anton is unrequited, her parting words to him after his final rejection become part of Nina’s dialogue in The Seagull.

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Féret portrays the Chekhov circle as similar to the doomed families in his famous plays, emphasizing the consumptive Nikolai, the ardent romantic Lika, and Anna (Marie Féret), a teacher at Sakhalin who has shaved her head as an example to her lice-ridden students and, of course, fallen for the kind, flirtatious writer whose works she adores. At the same time, Féret offers a Francophile interpretation of their story. L’amour takes a very prominent place in the film, with Lika and Anton’s affair (and Thiem’s obligatory nude scenes) and Anna and Anton’s repressed affair consuming a fair amount of screen time.

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It appears Féret shot largely with natural lighting, and his DP, Virginie Surdej, makes the most of the candlelit interiors and natural landscapes. One scene where Anton interviews Sakhalin’s prisoners in what looks like an empty barn has them emerge from the shadows near the walls into the light coming through the door as Anton enters and sits at a desk recording their experiences, an effective visual metaphor for the revelations Chekhov will soon publish. Féret uses music only when filming action, which, to me, seemed like unnecessary filler to attract our gaze. The production is rather too pretty, a collection of well-appointed drawing rooms, picturesque estates, and spotless, fashionably dressed characters. Even the prisoners seemed to have carefully arranged rags and dirt.

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The Seagull was not a success when it premiered and didn’t gain recognition as a masterpiece until it was remounted in 1898. Féret doesn’t give us this information, preferring to allude to the radical transformation in acting styles that must have confused audiences by having Chekhov berate his actors during a rehearsal for their artificial line readings and melodramatic gestures. Of course, melodrama has fallen far out of favor, but I wonder whether Anton Chekhov 1890 might have benefited from a more passionately Russian approach similar to what John Huston achieved in sounding some very Irish notes in filming James Joyce’s, The Dead (1987)—a similar family affair that was the director’s last film. Regardless, Anton Chekhov 1890 is a well-crafted period piece that does justice to its subject.

Anton Chekhov 1890 screens Sunday, March 6 at 3 p.m. and Thursday, March 10 at 8 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.

Previous coverage

Home Care: A home health nurse finds out she needs care every bit as much as her patients in this rueful look at small-town life and middle-age regret. (Czech Republic)

Forbidden Films: Free speech is debated in this somewhat crude documentary look at Nazi-era films that have been banned from public viewing. (Germany)

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