screened Thursday June 28 2007 on Image DVD in Weehawken NJ
Picking up from the scenes of domestic recuperation that concluded the battle-heavy Part I, Part II opens with a triptych shot, recalling Abel Gance’s Napoleon, of Russian and French forces convened to negotiate a truce in 1811.
From there the story swings into a completely different direction: “The actual life of real people, with its concerns of health, sickness, work, rest, and the interest people take in thinking, the sciences, poetry and music, love, friendship, hatred, passion, went on as usual, independently and outside of the political issue of friendship or war with Napoleon Bonaparte.”
Part II is told largely from the point of view of Natasha Rostova, who over the course of 96 minutes goes from being a naive debutante to the dishonored ex-fiancee of Prince Bolonsky. It is a purposeful counterpoint to the masculine-themed narrative of men in war that dominates Part I. Comparatively low key and interior in tone, this section is largely successful in inhabiting a female perspective to early 19th-century aristrocratic Russian life, situated in stately chambers, ballrooms and daily domestic excursions.
Critical to Part II is the performance of Russian ballerina Lyudmila Savelyeva as Natasha Rostova, and she plays her part like a demure variation on Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara. She plays her moods broadly, pretty much telegraphing her expressions to the camera, while her voiceover fills in any leftover bits of intrigue concerning her thoughts. Despite its limitations, her transparency becomes one of the charms to her performance, as it enables us to inhabit her sense of wonder and fear towards the world as it opens up to her.
Bondarchuk proves to be as virtuosic in presenting the spectacle of a high society ball as he is with an epic battle, choreographic hundreds of costumed dancers around his camera, while dramatically focusing on Natasha’s anxious debut and introduction to Prince Bolonsky.
Throughout Part II Bondarchuk utilizes split screens to depict parallel action, such as in contrasting the separate conversations of Bolonsky and Natasha with their respective confidantes following their encounter:
Bolonsky and Natasha agree to a one year engagement and Bolonsky goes off to war. There is a long interlude where Natasha takes front and center. She visits her uncle’s rural estate, and here the narrative basically stands still, which might be deadly for some viewers. But it’s worth appreciating what Bondarchuk may be up to here. With long sequences devoted to hunting wolf and folk dancing, there’s an ethnographic bent, as if the film is subtly presenting what is at stake for preservation with all this fighting (even if at this point the war scenes feel as far away as another movie). There’s a remarkable range of moods that pass through this section, largely reflecting the sensation of living in wintry seclusion in the Russian countryside, from festive dances to wistful, slightly melancholy conversations in dark rooms.
These longueurs, as beguiling as they are in their shifting tonal registers, don’t lead to much of anything – eventually Natasha returns to high society, only to be seduced by an officer possibly as a way of disgracing Prince Bolonsky. The ruse works as Bolonsky breaks the engagement. These events turn the film in a more conventional, melodramatic direction towards the end, and the epic begins to resemble more of a stately but perfunctory TV miniseries than as a complex interpretation of Tolstoy.
It still isn’t clear at this point if overall this is largely an overbloated prestige production or a visionary work that integrates its overabundant ideas into a seamless whole. All the same, it is apparent to me that much thought and feeling is invested in this film, scene for scene. There is a stunnng array of cinematographic virtuosity on display, along the lines of a more stately version of Kane/Ambersons-era Welles, reflecting the variety of characters and moods that pass through the screen. And with that, we take it to Part III…