Anton Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Dog” is arguably my all time favorite short story. It’s so many beautiful things at once. Descriptions as light and delicate as snowflakes are combined with a hearty narration that’s both impassive yet empathetic. In a half-hour’s reading time you marvel in a symphony of moods: melancholy, sarcasm, infatuation, disdain, lust, hope, despair, and finally a sense of love that’s as helpless as it’s hopeful. Josef Heifetz made a masterful Soviet film adaptation 50 years ago, but I would love to see another version – possibly even set to contemporary times, since Chekhov’s brilliant diagnosis of the social circumstances that breed love can be applied practically anyplace and anywhere. I’d certainly welcome such an effort over Nikita Mikhalkov’s supersized and superficial international prestige parade, a film so bombastic and unsubtle that it’s everything Chekhov isn’t.
For one thing, it stitches “The Lady with a Dog” with elements of three other Chekhov stories, forming a gargantuan picaresque whose sprawl undermines the intimacy that’s a Chekhov lynchpin. (Compare to what Robert Altman does with Raymond Carver’s stories in Short Cuts, which builds its landscape on carefully observed moments and interactions within each scene.) This romp through 19th century Russia is driven by Marcello Mastroianni in a shamefully hammy performance, leveraging his brand name charisma with broad gestures and slapstick.
Setting the non-Chekhov objection aside, the film could fit within the other Mikhalkov films I’ve seen (A Slave of Love; Burnt by the Sun) as another runaway dream of what Russia was, is and could be. It easily courts and exploits nostalgia, though not without some tweaking of those impulses. I can’t say I appreciate the stylistic idiom Mikahlkov chooses to explore his ideas, such as his characteristic warm orange hues that seem to swaddle viewers in a giant fuzzy blanket of period splendor. The film struggles to establish its position with Mastroianni: it obviously wants to skewer his Italian playboy’s narrow, over-romanticizing regard towards his adopted Russian homeland, but at the same time it obviously wants to capitalize on Mastroianni’s charm, playing up his goofy charm, which muddles its critical program. Finally, when the film gyrates through a trifecta of 11th hour ironic whammies, it feels like a cheap, desperate bid for profundity, to whack the viewer into a metaphysical contemplative stupor lest they were having too much fun. Chekhov be having none of that.
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The following citations were counted towards the placement of Dark Eyes among the 1000 Greatest Films according to They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?
Barbara Schweizerhof, Steadycam (2007)
Harlan Jacobson, Steadycam (2007)
Paul Lee, PopcornQ (1997)
Halliwell’s Top 1000 Films (2005)
New York Times, The Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made (2004)
Dark Eyes” tells one of those stories where you think you know everything, but you do not, and at the end of the story you know that everyone is very unhappy but you cannot see precisely what they should have done differently. The movie is based on stories by Anton Chekhov and has been directed by a Russian, Nikita Mikhalkov, who is not afraid of large romantic gestures and tragic coincidences. You realize after awhile that it doesn’t matter that Mastroianni can do nothing, that his tragedy is in the past; the telling of the story is the whole point, and he travels the world with his sad tale, telling it probably again and again, for the whole importance of his life has been reduced to his great loss.
This is a beautiful film, lavishly shot on location at Italian and Russian spas and in great houses. The 19th century period is important, not simply because it recalls a time before telephones (which could have solved the whole tragedy), but because it recalls a state of mind before telephones (a time when people did not much believe in easy solutions). The movie is intriguing because of its moral complexity. After it’s over, you find yourself asking hard questions about who did right and who did wrong, and you’re confronted with the ironic possibility that maybe it didn’t matter, that maybe everyone was doomed from the start. The ending of this film is a real stunner. If you see “Dark Eyes,” ask yourself this question afterward: How would it have felt if the movie had provided what we anticipate will be the last scene, but isn’t? Would it have been simply corny? Or too heartbreaking to be endured?
- Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times, November 20, 1987
NIKITA MIKHALKOV’S ”Dark Eyes,” tonight’s convivial opening attraction of the 25th New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, is both enchanting and enchanted, a triumph composed of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions.
Though it’s about a man with the soul of an artist and the manner of a buffoon, about the man’s abandoned aspirations and doomed love affairs, as well as about the heedless follies of the new European bourgeoisie, ”Dark Eyes” is consistently exhilarating. In the steadfast resolve of a fellow who’s an utter failure, it dramatizes a truly Chekhovian concept of comedy.
Mr. Mastroianni’s remarkable performance, both heartbreaking and farcical, sets the tone for ”Dark Eyes,” whose emotional landscape is as broad and rich as its physical terrain. The screenplay, by Alexander Adabachian and Mr. Mikhalkov ”with the collaboration of Suso Cecchi D’Amico,” makes astonishingly successful and intelligent use of the Chekhov material. Mr. Mikhalkov and his collaborators have folded key elements from ”The Name-Day Party” into ”The Lady With the Little Dog,” borrowing from another tale, ”Anna Around the Neck,” for the substance of Anna’s character, and taking inspiration from ”My Wife” to arrive at their own conclusion.
Occasionally (especially in the spa sequences) Mr. Mikhalkov’s vision appears to have been unduly influenced by the style of Federico Fellini, possibly because the orchestrations make Francis Lai’s soundtrack score sound uncomfortably like one by Nino Rota. There also are times when the lip-synching of the Italian dialogue is off. These are minor reservations. That the film is the work of a singular, very Russian artist, a man with a profound appreciation for his sources, is apparent throughout, from the indolent luxury of the great party scene until the final, elegant shot of the beloved Anna.
- Vincent Canby, The New York Times, September 25, 1987
Mikhalkov’s adaptation of several of Chekhov’s short stories makes for bland viewing indeed. Mastroianni is in fine form as the fickle, philandering and finally irritatingly spineless Romano, a wealthy Italian whose dismay at the imminent bankruptcy of his wife’s bank takes him away from family and mistress to the distracting lassitudes of a health spa, where he encounters and seduces the shy, reluctant Anna (Sofonova). When Anna returns to Russia and husband, Romano follows, but will he do the honourable thing and tell his wife (Mangano) the truth? Mikhalkov manages, remarkably, to render the harrowing dilemmas thrown up by problems of adultery, commitment, disillusionment and solitude woefully shallow. Mastroianni apart, the film is a glossy, unprepossessing example of the mainstream art movie.
- Geoff Andrew, Time Out Film Guide
Once upon a time—in 1959, to be precise—Soviet director Josef Heifits filmed a lovely, exquisite, and by now all but forgotten adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s story “The Lady With the Dog,” which wisely restricted itself to Chekhovian dimensions, giving the plot and characters their full due but never any more. By grotesque contrast, writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov’s elephantine set piece for Marcello Mastroianni (1987)—which came about through Mastroianni’s desire to work with the Soviet filmmaker—loosely adapts that Chekhov story along with elements from three others (“My Wife,” “The Birthday Party,” and “Subjugated Anna”) to produce a film so sprawling and ungainly that Chekhov is turned into chopped liver. Atrociously out-of-sync dubbing, shameless mugging and prancing from Mastroianni, and an unearned (and decidedly un-Chekhovian) grandiosity are the main elements on the bill of fare, all working overtime to register life’s little ironies; Elena Sofonova, Marthe Keller, Silvana Mangano, and a cute little dog are on hand to teach Mikhalkov and Mastroianni a few lessons in restraint, but alas, to no avail.
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader
Like so many Soviet moviemakers, Mikhalkov works in a tempo meant for patient, stalwart audiences. He lingers over his ornate sets, photographing the furniture as if he were shooting a House & Garden center spread. And not a rosy landscape goes unswept as the director scans Mother Russia’s misty panoramas; the sparse story looks overdressed, like Elizabeth Ashley in Elizabeth Taylor’s earrings.
The whole thing is precisely acted, with Marthe Keller pert as a Neapolitan Goldie Hawn in the role of Romano’s other mistress, and Larionov immensely likable as the passenger sympathizing with Romano’s pitiful autobiography. Skilled as the cast is, however, there’s a chilly chemistry, as if the actors had just met at a cocktail party. Even the appearance of a caravan of gypsy dancers can’t heat things up.
The screenplay, thoughtful, but skimpy, is written by Mikhalkov, his close colleague Alexander Adabachian, and Suso Cecchi D’Amico, coauthor of such landmark movies as “The Bicycle Thief” and “The Leopard.” This trio of wild romantics can’t resist a contrived and easy ending. Or dialogue like this: “The boat will rot. The sea dry up. But the good and evil we have done will always exist.”
- Rita Kempley, The Washington Post
Add this film to the list — Belle de Jour, Juliet of the Spirits, Last Year at Marienbad — of the dreamiest movies ever made. Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov, Dark Eyes is loosely based on several short stories by Anton Checkhov and stars Marcello Mastroianni in one of the most masterful performances of his career. As Romano, Mastroianni is a charming man who savors life but inwardly remains a confused little boy who doesn’t know what he wants. Under-appreciated by his rich and domineering wife (Silvana Mangano), he falls in love with Anna (Elena Sofonova), an elegant Russian lady he meets at a health spa. Concocting a business trip to Russia, he hopes to woo Anna away from her husband. Against a backdrop of exquisite landscapes, costumes, and buildings, Dark Eyes has the ambiguity of a dream that gently muses on the different shades of love.
-Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, Spirituality and Practice
Mikhalkov offers two perspectives: the view on Italy seen through the eyes of a Russian director (himself) and the view on Russia seen through the Italian visitor. He also introduces two spaces of Russian life: the provincial town and the city, which are facade only, and the countryside, which is genuine. The emphasis on the national ‘peculiarities’ of drinking, dancing and singing turned Dark Eyes into a cheap ‘kitsch’ version of Chekhov for Western consumption.
- Stephen C. Hutchings, Anat Vernitski, Russian and Soviet Film Adaptations of Literature, 1900-2001. Routledge, 2005. Page 148.
It is worth comparing Mikhalkov’s film with an earlier film version of the story, Kheifits’s Lady with a Lapdog [Dama s sobachkoi, 1960]. Kheifits’s film demonstrates fidelity to the original, which it follows meticulously, and endows the background with the social ills of the time, exposing poverty and offering a critique of Russia in the late nineteenth century that is much in line with socialist values. It is a critical view of Russian society as a redundant world, destined and doomed to be replaced by the new socialist Russia in the twentieth century. Mikhalkov clearly departs from this view, idealising the Russia of the late 1890s as a place of idleness but no social hardship. Even the vagrant life of the gypsies and the stifled life of Anna in the provincial town are glossed over. Mikhalkov creates a myth of the life of provincial Russia in the late nineteenth century, ignoring the encroaching hardship on the middle classes that was perceived in Mechanical Piano (the servan’t refusal to obey, the reports of women working in the fields, the bankruptcy of the estate). There is neither critique nor irony in the portrayal of Russia in Dark Eyes, which is therefore mythogogic. The Kheifits film adaptation treats Chekhov in the conventional and conservative Soviet way, seeking to explore the social injustice of imperial Russia.
Dark Eyes has received little critical attention in Russia. A review after the television screening of the film in 1994 comments on this fact, and Pavel Lebeshev remembers the House of Cinema audience leaving even during the screening. The hostility to the film is also illustrated by the relative absence of reviews of the film in the major film journal (iskusstvo kino) and other major newspapers with serious film columns. Instead, Sovetskaia kultura carried several readers’ responses and short critical comments. The film was criticized for its profanation of Chekhov and the parody of Soviet bureaucracy, but the main accusation levelled at the film was the attempt to cater for Western audiences by producing a kitsch version of Chekhov. The most outraged responses came from provincial readers (as if they were the most qualified to comment on the portrayal of life in Sysoyev)…
Both Dark Eyes and Tarkovsky’s Nostalgia look at Russia from a distance, and both film-makers are dislocated from their homeland at the time of the film’s making (and both intending to return at the time of filming). In Nostalgia approaches and conclusions are entirely different from Dark Eyes. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s films Russia is rendered through the poetic image of a landscape with a country house (Mirror), or a meadow with a hut by a little pond where past and present merge (Nostalgia). In Nostalgia the wooden house is not only in the past but also in the distance, and it is simultaneously in the present and in Italy, surrounded by ruins. Tarkovsky’s Gorchakov harbours values within himself, within his personal memory, that he transfers onto other times and spaces, aware of this in a reflective nostalgia. Tarkovsky transposes his image into the here and now, unifying the space of Italy and Russia while representing through this very same image the dichotomy of his character, split between Russia and Italy, past and present. Romano longs for a country that was never his, trying to build for himself a different past that he feels closer to than the lullaby of his grandmother, a past that has no images. He betrays himself, not only restoring a past but building a past that he never belonged to, either in time or space. Romano falls in love with a woman he cannot understand, with a country that he cannot understand. He fails in the here and now because of his inability to realise that his ‘longing’ (algia) is based on a misunderstanding of the ‘home’ (nostos).
The Russia that Mikhalkov presents is a country seen through the eyes of a foreigner, who views superficially (he really is searching for Anna) and fails to look beyond the surface (literally, in the case of the unbreakable glass). On that surface he finds all his prejudices confirmed: petty bureaucrats who cannot or will not make decisions; beautiful facades; vodka-drinking people; young men obsessed with the environment; good-hearted people; and charming and cheerful gypsies. Clearly this view of Russia is cliche-ridden, and represents the impressions of a traveller who wants to have his preconceptions confirmed. As a Russian director Mikhalkov could have taken a different approach. Instead, he confirms to the West its romanticised and idealized view of nineteenth-century Russia. He presents a cheap print (lubok) of his own country as a space that is, as such, neither desirable nor within reach. Only its attributes (Anna’s devotion, the gypsy’s carefree lifestyle, the beauty of the countryside glorified visually and in the words of the vet) are desirable for Romano. He mistakes the part for the whole, and his illusion makes him a character dishonest with himself, despicable in his conduct, but lovable for the actor who plays him – Marcello Mastroianni. With Dark Eyes Mikhalkov moves the furthest away from the reflective or ironic nostalgia of his earlier films towards a restorative nostalgia that tends towards nationalistic revival.
- Birgit Beumers, Nikita Mikhalkov: Between Nostalgia and Nationalism. I.B. Tauris, 2005. Pages 84, 89, 90
EXCERPTS FROM NEW YORK TIMES INTERVIEW WITH ACTRESS ELENA SOFONOVA
ELENA SOFONOVA DOES IT ALL with her eyes. She suffers with them, smiles with them, searches with them – now for love, now simply for self-respect. Soft and deep-set above the high Slavic cheekbones, they seem by far the strongest of her tools as an actress. For her last two films, first the 1985 Soviet film ”Winter Cherries” and now the widely admired Italian-Soviet offering, ”Dark Eyes,” they have given her a way to evoke eloquently and almost silently the emotions of a charming and charmable woman who wants something more out of life than charm.
”I was playing for the people who will watch the film, and I was trying to open for them a part of their own soul, or something they know very well about themselves.”
”It’s the dream of any actor to work with Nikita,” Miss Sofonova said. ”An actor always wants to work for a director who takes care of him and loves him. Nikita is the master of this.
”And Marcello was so simple to deal with. He doesn’t have the star attitudes that you’d have to get used to.”
She did, however, find that Mr. Mastroianni was used to a different filming rhythm. ”We are taught to play through a long scene in which there are several transitions from one mood to another. For Marcello this was incomprehensible. He likes to play the various fragments and then splice it together.”
But, as Mr. Mikhalkov was directing, Mr. Mastroianni played it his way.
She knows, she said recently, that some Soviet critics, although they have remained largely silent, dislike the film, which has been seen only at this summer’s Moscow Film Festival. (Soviet distribution rights haven’t yet been sold by the Italian producers.) Among the criticisms: that it creates a prettified, cliched portrait of Russia designed for foreign consumption and that it lacks Chekhovian depth of character.
Miss Sonfonova argues, however, that the objections really arise from the sometimes unflattering portrayals of Russians – the ”chinovniki,” or petty bureaucrats who revel in red tape, for instance.
”Russians can see many of their own negative sides in this film, and they don’t like it,” she said.
- Felicity Barringer, The New York Times, October 4 1987
ABOUT MARCELLO MASTROIANNI
Since the 1950s, Marcello Mastroianni has been Italy’s favorite leading man, as well as one of his country’s finest actors. Until the emergence of Gérard Depardieu on the international film scene, Mastroianni also was the most famous European actor in America. This renown is symbolized by his earning the astonishing total of three Academy Award nominations (for Divorce, Italian Style, A Special Day, and Dark Eyes), quite an accomplishment for an actor working in non-English-language films.
In his long and prolific career, Mastroianni almost singlehandedly defined the contemporary type of Latin lover, then proceeded to redefine it a dozen times and finally parodied it and played it against type. He remains unsurpassed as one of the most universally popular and beloved of all motion picture personalities.
—Elaine Mancini, updated by Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com
He was worshipped as the ultimate Latin lover. Yet the qualities Marcello Mastroianni most consistently projected in his films were weakness, weariness, sadness, and uncertainty — all of which suggest an ambivalence well outside the usual stereotypes of male sexuality.
- Chris Fujiwara, The Boston Phoenix
ABOUT NIKITA MIKHALKOV
Possessing an impeccable artistic pedigree, actor-writer-director Nikita Mikhalkov prospered during the Soviet era and survived the collapse of Communism, becoming his country’s best-known and successful film director, not to mention a leading candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin as President of Russia. His father was Sergei Mikhalkov, a poet and author of children’s books, who wrote the lyrics to the Soviet national anthem and whose Communist Party ties (he was head of the Soviet Writers Union) helped shield Nikita from the censorship and persecution that forced other filmmakers to curb their careers or compromise shamefully with the government. His mother, Natalya Konchalovskaya, descended from aristocracy, was a poet-essayist and the great-granddaughter of Vasily Surikov, one of Russia’s most famous painters, and her father Pyotr Konchalovsky was a major painter of the post-Impressionist school. Older brother Andrei Konchalovsky, also a renowned filmmaker, moved to the West and made a splash with “Runaway Train” (1985), but his subsequent Hollywood films failed to live up to its promise (or that of his epic “Siberiade” 1979). Remaining behind in his Russian homeland, Mikhalkov managed to forge the more acclaimed career.
Although he did not come to prominence as a director until the mid-1970s, Nikita Mikhalkov ranks among the most gifted Russian filmmakers of the entire post-World War II era. His films are highly emotional examinations of what it means to be Russian amid the swirl of politics and turmoil that has characterized his homeland during the twentieth century. In fact, he presently finds himself one of the few Russian directors whose career has flourished since the disintegration of the USSR. While Mikhalkov’s equally celebrated brother, director Andrei Konchalovsky, decided to leave their homeland in the early 1980s and work in the West, Mikhalkov chose to remain in Russia. From that vantage point he watched his international reputation expand while steadfastly continuing to make films that are uniquely Russian in subject matter and flavor.
Despite his loyalty to Russia, Mikhalkov has not worked exclusively in his homeland. He went to Italy to film Dark Eyes, featuring Marcello Mastroianni in a role he was born to play: Romano, a likably charming but lazy lothario whose soul is sadly hollow, and who cannot comprehend that he has allowed life to pass him by. The scenario is loosely based on several Chekhov short stories. Regarding his affinity for Chekhov’s works, Mikhalkov once observed that the writer “feels very close to me because he offers no answers to the questions he poses. Chekhov’s characters seek an answer which they never find. I too don’t know the answer. I’m not even sure that knowing it would make me any happier. What is important is the search for the truth; that is happiness.” This statement relates not just to Chekhov but to the manner in which Mikhalkov has attempted to depict and, ultimately, understand the changing face of Russia.
- Rob Edelman, Film Reference.com