Monday, June 29, 2020

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part 2

Pamela Villoresi in Marco Bellocchio's adaptation of The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) (1977).

Drawing from a Bottomless Well: Unknown Chekhov Movies of the 1970s, Part I was published here last week.

It seems strange to think of the iconoclastic, Godard-influenced Italian director Marco Bellocchio, who came into movies in the mid-sixties with the jagged, coruscating dark comedy Fists in the Pocket and the startling class satire China Is Near, settling on the idea of adapting Chekhov’s The Seagull (Il Gabbiano) to the screen. One can imagine Bellocchio identifying with the protagonist, the young tragic aspiring playwright and short-story writer Konstantin Treplev, when he protests, “We must have new forms!” before presenting his symbolist play to a small audience of family and friends that includes his mother, Irina Arkadina, a famous actress. (When she refuses to take his efforts seriously, he rings down the curtain and goes off in a huff.) But The Seagull, first performed disastrously in 1896 and resurrected two years later by Stanislavski and the pioneering Moscow Art Theatre, is one of the signal works of theatrical realism, and Bellocchio plays it straight. This movie never opened in North America, hardly anyone on these shores has ever seen it (it’s available on an Italian DVD), and except for Laura Betti, who also worked with Fellini, Pasolini and Bertolucci, I didn’t recognize a single actor in the cast. But the ensemble is impeccable, and this is certainly the best movie anyone has made yet of The Seagull.

Like Sidney Lumet’s 1969 American version, Bellocchio’s has been given a ravishing rural setting (the beautiful cinematography is by Tonino Nardi) that underscores Chekhov’s melancholy treatment of the way our lives become lost in the whirlwind of time. Act one takes place in the summer, and Treplev (Remo Girne) and Nina (Pamela Villoresi), whom he adores and who longs to become an actress (he has starred her in his play), are at the beginning of their lives. By act four, set in winter, two years have passed, and as Treplev’s beloved uncle Sorin (Mattia Pinoli) lies close to death, the one-time lovers have a brief, sad reunion; Nina’s life and her career are both a shambles and after she leaves Treplev, who has never gotten over her, shoots himself.

I commented in the first part of this article, which focused on Laurence Olivier’s 1970 film of Three Sisters, that a first-rate production of one of the four great Chekhov plays always prompts us to look at it fresh, making connections we hadn’t noticed before. In this Seagull the female characters echo each other in ways I haven’t seen in other versions. As they wait for Treplev’s play to start, Polina (Clara Colosimo), the neglected wife of Shamrayev (Gaetano Campisi), the manager of Irina’s country estate, sits with Dr. Dorn (Remo Remotti), a still-handsome one-time Don Juan with whom she has been carrying on an affair under Shamrayev’s nose, perhaps for years. Fussy, maternal, yet still playing the coquette, she scolds him for not taking proper care of himself, but what really irks her is that, like all men, she thinks, he is in thrall to the glamorous Irina Arkadina (Betti). Irina dresses exquisitely and has taken expert care of herself, as her profession demands, whereas Polina has sunk into a heavy middle age, but since both are zaftig they look almost like distorted mirror images of each other, and you can believe that Polina was voluptuous when she was Nina’s age. So when Irina’s lover, the much-lauded writer Boris Trigorin (Giulio Brogi), falls for Nina and begs Irina to let him go and she asks if he thinks she’s so old and ugly that he can treat her this way, we recall Polina. Of course, Arkadina isn’t ugly, and in the realm of sexual interaction, as in the realm of theatre, she’s a master strategist. She senses danger as soon as Nina emerges from the interrupted performance and meets Trigorin; her kindness over Nina’s acting is superficial and insincere, and when the younger woman insists that she has to hurry home to her disapproving father and stepmother, Irina makes no attempt to detain her. In the second act, keenly aware of the glimmerings of erotic interest between them, she has time to prepare herself for Trigorin’s attempt to leave her, which she all but dismantles. She gets him to promise to stay with her, but at the end of the act, when Nina tells him she has decided to move to Moscow and pursue an acting career, he kisses her passionately and arranges to meet up with her there. (It’s as if he succumbs to Irina as to a familiar narcotic, but when she’s out of his sight and he’s alone with Nina the drug wears off.) But by the final act, though, he has tired of Nina, abandoned her after the death of their child, and returned to Arkadina. She loses the set but wins the match.

The other character in this triad of women whom, Bellocchio emphasizes, Chekhov has grouped together in contradistinction to Nina is Polina’s daughter Masha (Gisella Burinato), who is hopelessly in love with Treplev and goes so far as to marry her suitor, the tattered schoolteacher Medvedenko (Antonio Piovanelli), in a mad effort to bury that love. Of course it doesn’t work: the marriage is a fiasco, and in the fourth act she dotes on Treplev more than ever. Medvedenko is usually played as a sad sack, tasked with taking care of their baby while Masha hangs around the estate mooning over Konstantin, but in Bellocchio’s reading he’s angry over her annoyed, dismissive treatment of him; their quarrel is two-sided, and when they tussle over the placement of Sorin’s wheelchair or when she heaves his overcoat at him before he treks out into the bitter weather, we get a glimpse of how bitter a marriage can be. His parsimonious father-in-law having refused to lend him a horse, he says he’ll walk the five miles home and apologizes, “I shouldn’t have troubled you,” but Piovanelli speaks that line to Masha, alluding ironically to the mistake he made in throwing himself at her in the first place.

Bellocchio stages the material to emphasize the idea that Irina and Treplev are both voyeurs stuck on the outskirts of Trigorin and Nina’s incipient romance. Treplev overhears Nina’s short monologue in act two about her fascination with the famous couple on the estate, and at the end of the third act, from his window he sees Trigorin kiss her. (There’s a voyeuristic motif in this movie:  in the final act, at the end of Nina’s speech to Treplev in which she claims that she has survived the tragedy in her life and is hopeful for the future, she falls apart as soon as she realizes that Trigorin has accompanied Irina to the estate and is actually in the next room. In the play she hears his laugh, which reminds us that she told Konstantin that Trigorin laughed at her dreams of becoming a great actress; but in the movie she sees him through a window.)

I once heard the great stage director Andre Gregory – whose mounting of Uncle Vanya, filmed by Louis Malle as Vanya on 42nd Street, is the undisputable high point in the history of Chekhov plays on screen – characterize The Seagull as a young person’s play, since its action is focused on the romantic and artistic aspirations of two characters in their early twenties. That’s why the play breaks our hearts: in two short years, Treplev’s and Nina’s lives have already been smashed to bits. Yet the more seasoned figures, the elegant Arkadina and the celebrated Trigorin, lead triumphant lives, even if he’s beset with anxiety over his writing and she’s passed the peak of her career. (When she arrives on the estate in act four, singing her own praises, the theatrical success she talks about was in Kharkov, not in Moscow, and it was for an audience of students.) Treplev’s envy of Trigorin is not just about Nina; he struggles over his sentences, tearing up draft after draft of his stories because he can’t manage the older writer’s trick of evoking mood with a few well-chosen images. Of course the two reasons are intertwined: he can see why Nina would want to drop a failure like him, who wrote a play for her that she admits she finds baffling and stiff, for a success like Trigorin. When Trigorin approaches at the end of his second-act exchange with Nina, Treplev refers to him sarcastically as a “real genius,” but as she looks in the older man’s direction she can’t help breaking into a smile, and Konstantin simply fades away; she lets him go without noticing he’s gone. Even he can see that his romantic gestures are pathetic – as pathetic, though he doesn’t make the link, as Masha’s. But he can’t stop himself from making them: he throws the dead seagull at Nina’s feet, he tries and fails to shoot himself. (And then, at the end, he tries again and this time his shot hits home.)

In Vanya on 42nd Street the scene between Sonia (Brooke Smith) and the doctor, Astrov (Larry Pine), who doesn’t reciprocate her love for him – doesn’t even notice it – is charming. She begs him not to drink anymore because it doesn’t suit him, and on the spur of the moment – and because he’s a little drunk! – he agrees. In Smith’s magnificent reading of this exchange you can see her delight that she’s had an effect on his behavior (though we know it’s only temporary), the way she knows women who love men are meant to have. I thought of that scene when I watched the long second-act scene between Trigorin and Nina in Bellocchio’s movie that begins with her schoolgirlish question about what it feels like to be such a famous success. Initially he’s irritated (“What success? I have never pleased myself”); then he feels remorseful over his tone with her and patiently attempts to explain the agonies of the writing process, Pamela Villoresi’s face tells us how thrilled she is that he’s confiding in her about his insecurities; we can see that she feels she’s catching a glimpse of wonders untold – that she’s landed on the moon. Like Astrov with Sonia, he seems to be taking her very seriously here. And he is; it’s only later that we realize that his sharing something so personal with her is a reflection of self-absorption, not generosity of spirit. As Giulio Brogi plays him, he’s one of those charismatic men who shine their warmth on others and then turn away from them, leaving them in the cold.

In Betti’s interpretation of Arkadina – and she’s the finest Arkadina I’ve ever seen, in any medium – she’s sharply conscious of the effect of everything she says and does; her technique for living her life parallels her skill as an actress. Directors are sometimes tempted to imply that Treplev’s right to put down the theatre of which she’s a part – that she’s old-fashioned and melodramatic. But when Betti’s Irina quotes Hamlet to her son, her reading of Gertrude’s lines is superb; she gives it a depth of feeling that we would think of as modernist. (We’re reminded that Stanislavski didn’t invent modern acting; he wove a technique for teaching acting out of his observation of the best work he’d seen from professional actors.) By contrast, Nina’s recitation of Treplev’s poetic language is all undifferentiated feeling, a wash of emotion, even though you can see why Dorn is touched by her, just as he’s touched by Treplev’s writing – there’s raw talent there. Irina isn’t interested in nurturing it; apart from the fact that her radar is up when Trigorin sees Nina (“Compliments embarrass him,” she announces as a way of cutting off Nina’s gushing over him), she sees any young actress as a threat, any theatrical revolutionary as an insult to her established world. Her unkindness to her son is wounding; you want to cry out against it. In the third act, after he’s tried to kill himself, you can see her concern for him, but only intermittently. His request that she change his bandage is so despairing that, as if realizing for the first time how miserable he is, she folds him in her arms. But then they quarrel over Trigorin, whom he insists he doesn’t respect, and she denigrates Konstantin’s talent. They can’t help themselves, neither of them, but you hoped for more sustained compassion from Arkadina; when they reconcile at the end of the scene and she assures him that she’s taking Trigorin away to Moscow and Nina will love Konstantin again, we know that all she’s thinking about is Trigorin’s loving her again. Just as they’re about to depart for the train station, she pauses as she pulls on her gloves and asks where her son is. But instead of taking a moment to look for him, she merely asks Shamrayev or Polina to say her farewells for her.

There’s more to be said about the subtleties of the character work in this movie, but I’d like to end by acknowledging some of its other pleasures, like the music by Bellocchio’s frequent collaborator Nicola Piovani and the way the director and Nardi, the cinematographer, get the mood of midsummer ennui in the second act. Many of the visual details stay with you, like Treplev chasing geese away while he gets ready for the performance (we’re in the country, after all) and a boat of musicians floating by on the river. Bellocchio emphasizes both the futility of regrets and our inability not to hang onto them, and also the futility of our efforts to change our lives – to get the things we want desperately but that life and time deny us: in the fourth act, as Dorn and the dying Sorin converse, the philosophical doctor gently mocking his old friend for wanting to hold on after he’s lived his life, Polina weeps quietly in another part of the room. Bellocchio has made films of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Prince of Homburg and Luigi Pirandello’s Henry IV, plays that seem better suited to his style and temperament, but they aren’t very good, whereas The Seagull obviously struck a chord with him. In an amazing career – he turns eighty-one this year, and his latest picture, The Traitor, is the best movie we’re likely to see this year – The Seagull is, unexpectedly, one of the highlights.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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