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Behind the Celluloid Curtain: #1 “The Lady with the Dog”

The first letter in a correspondence between two critics discussing Soviet cinema. The subject: love in a time of discontent.
This is the first letter in the first series of what will be an ongoing installment of correspondences between Scout Tafoya and Veronika Ferdman on the topic of Soviet cinema. Each series will be organized around a theme—director, genre, time period, mood or more whimsical connectors such as color or season. In short, the writers reserve the right to let Soviet cinema be their muse and guide the orientation of the letter writing. For this inaugural dispatch from the celluloid wonders of the Soviet bloc the subject can best be described as love in a time of discontent.

Dear Veronika,
I’m excited to be writing to you about the many, many undiscovered, unsung gems hiding in the vast canon of Russian cinema. There’s so much to cover that it’s frankly a little overwhelming to me. A whole world of movies I’ve never heard of just waiting to be watched. So much to be learned about people I’ll never meet. I wonder, Veronika, just how different our childhoods were. I know you were raised in the belly of the beast, so to speak, which must have had quite an impact on how you saw Russian culture for much of your life. I was raised by liberals with no axe to grind against the Red menace (in middle school I borrowed my dad’s dog-eared copy of Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Great Shark Hunt” without asking. I opened the front of the old hard cover book and out fell a membership card to the Young Socialist Alliance that had grown soft to the touch with age. This, as you might imagine, was an important moment for me), so consequently my impression of Russia came from movies, largely represented by action movies in the 90s. As relations between the US and Russia became more amicable, big Hollywood movies started filming behind the Iron Curtain (and Russian hockey players came over to start winning the Stanley Cup). Those big, beautiful orb-like towers on top of churches began showing up in movies like Air Force One to give an impression of a culture that was a big question mark to kids like me.
I don’t remember the first Russian film I saw. It may well have been Battleship Potemkin, but I honestly don’t know. I do know that when I started racking up masterpieces (Strike!, Ivan The Terrible, Andrei Rublev, The Cranes Are Flying) the impression I got was of a land and people being pulled in a hundred different directions. The propaganda I’d been warned about by conservative-leaning teachers or acquaintances was nowhere in sight. These films were startling, certainly, in that they seemed to be both modern and ancient, not so much ahead of their time as outside of it. None of the movies I had watched at that point in my life looked or felt anything like these beautiful transmissions from another era. When you’re used to American movies, even by outliers like Wes Anderson, Tarkovsky and Eisenstein are really going to seem like a bolt from the blue. The lessons taught by Russian cinema had all been internalized, but the style had found its way into much bolder art than was typically being shown on TV or movie screens in the US in the mid-to-late 1990s.
All this to say that it was many years before I ever asked myself what life actually looked like in Russia. The American school system (even the one found at a private school that until recently catered pretty exclusively to hippies) took its sweet old time before it got around to asking children to empathize with other cultures. We could learn about their governments and their historical missteps and how they fit into America’s cliff notes, but I was only fleetingly encouraged to imagine life in Iraq, Sierre Leone, Afghanistan or, indeed, Russia. I would love to know, Veronika, what exactly you were told about the place growing up because it was a grey-hued mystery for most of my life. Vague concepts defined the largest segmented landmass in the world—communism, socialism—ideas I would only later come to understand. And yet…
And yet I would watch more and more Russian cinema, whatever received a US DVD release (not many) but none of these films ever really showed me what life was like for the average person. The Ascent, Stalker, Viy, Veldt and Khrustyalov, My Car! all have important things to say about what life in Russia had done to the worldview of their artists, but I had no idea what it might look like for these filmmakers to walk to the supermarket. Did art about the people exist outside of a highly charged, splendidly stylized context? Was everything either reverie or nightmare? This cinema was informative in some ways, but also made a lot about the country seem even more vaguely mythic. The self-portraiture of the US, France and Japan were filled with glimpses of ordinary life. Surely there were Russian films about something simple that I was just missing.
The answer for me lay, in part, in the 1960 Cannes Film Festival, which hosted three Russian masterpieces, though only two critics and cinephiles still talk about with any regularity. There was Grigory Chukray’s Ballad of a Soldier, a sort of neo-realist poem about a man trying to see his mother while on leave during World War 2. There was Letter Never Sent, Mikhail Kalatozov’s blistering tale of lost geologists that showed a director knee-deep in a search for a whole new language. And then finally there was Iosif Kheifits’ bewitching Chekhov adaptation, The Lady with the Dog. The 1960 Cannes Film Festival was ground zero for the birth of cinematic modernism—La dolce vita and L’avventura went head to head for the Palme d’Or—but only a handful of the revolutionary works screened their ever snagged a reputation. The Lady with the Dog is a film I had never even heard of until researching for a series of video essays about the festival. I can see why it isn’t held up as a major work by historians or auteurists. Unlike The Virgin Spring or the dueling Italian masterpieces, The Lady with the Dog is a much more modest film. And then there’s the matter of Kheifits himself. He was a cohort of Aleksandr Zarkhi, the director of the first great Anna Karenina adaption, which would have shown up at Cannes eight years later were it not for the fact that it was 1968. Kheifits was there for every major every event of the 20th century in Russia and yet Americans don’t seem to know anything about him. He directed his first film in 1933 and his last in 1989 and yet…
And yet we don’t ever look to Kheifits for changing attitudes in either life or art in Russia because he never broke through. Which is an almost incalculable shame when you see just how much poetry he was capable of in just one feature. The Lady with the Dog is a film of insatiability hidden beneath austerity, of a great screaming truth hidden behind a long silence. It starts inauspiciously enough with a quick montage of a seaside town: a liquor bottle floating in the sea, a man absentmindedly pouring seltzer into a glass, too bored to drink this early in the day, perhaps still hung-over. Into a hotel lobby walks Dmitri Gurov (Aleksey Batalov), an elegant man, a picture of prosperity, his pointy facial hair and chiseled jaw marking him as a man to mind. The barflies tell him of the woman who just walked by and caught their collective eye. Gurov’s not convinced. Batalov’s face is a picture of solace, solidarity, temperance. He’s everything a man ought to be, and that includes susceptible to the charms of a lone, melancholy woman whose brilliant white dress and parasol seem calculated to attract attention in a tiny resort town such as this. What else have men to do but notice a woman like this. Their collision is inevitable. Iya Savvina plays the lady of the title, Anna Sergeyovna, and her face is a picture of earnestness. Her cheeks are a little too long, her hands, like her voice, are made of spun silk and her eyes stare into the abyss even when she looks right at you. She has something of Chloë Sevigny about her. Gurov falling for Anna is hardly a plot point, and Kheifits doesn’t treat it as anything other than one outcome a film is capable of. Everyone watches their dalliance grow in intensity with the same upraised eyebrow as anyone in the audience might. I wonder just how many Russian films I’ve never seen tackled exactly the same subjects as their American counterparts?
Gurov and Anna’s affair is expected, less so are the infinitesimal breaks in time and continuity during shot changes when the lovers-to-be properly talk to each other for the first time. These may be evidence of a poorly handled print yet they do seem to suggest something more strange. Just as the woefully maintained mono soundtrack now sounds purposely wonky, like an early psych album, these strange breaks give the impression of aching space coming between events, turning seconds into minutes. Like time is breaking apart for them. The couple’s conversation is banal, even as their eyes betray unfathomable emotional lives. Everything is quiet and calm on the surface, so naturally it’s only the length of a languorous edit before they’re walking together by the waterfront. The camera catches Gurov in his private moments, musing aloud that there’s something pathetic about the woman, even as he allows himself to stare into her, hoping to melt her resolve and steal a kiss in dark alleys. There’s something slightly vampiric about Dmitri Gurov, as his confidence grows whilst Anna’s shrinks. His touch seems to weaken her physically. When they first sleep together (and there is nothing coy about that turn of events) she cries without shame. She is married, of course, and doesn’t want anyone to know that she’s debased herself for another man.
In other words, life is much the same here as in every other society that films have shown me. Clandestine romances are the work of the devil. After they’ve slept together Dmitri and Anna go for a drive to a countryside beset by rolling hills and are confronted by the voice of god, who appears in every hiking holy beggar, crashing wave and blinding patch of light forcing its way through clouds. Kheifits’ modernism fights his old school Soviet montage in this beautiful sequence, just as the sound of the world battles his warbling soundtrack. Gurov is humbled by the symphony of wonders and gives into Anna’s religious worldview for a moment, just as Kheifits briefly leaves his practiced silences for old school rhapsody. A few minutes later, the two share a boat ride and the calm seas put us firmly back in Antonioni’s territory. I confess that I swoon for modernism from this period, as well as early flashes of it from the highly stylized likes of Leave Her To Heaven and The Red Shoes—how about you, Veronika? The curious thing is that the sea is rear projected behind the lovers, once more splitting the difference between the old and the new. Savvina’s face also seems stuck between effervescent silent-era poise and the haunted severity of the 1950s. You can see why Gurov can’t get quit of her shadow even when he returns to Moscow. Life there is hollow and noisy. At a dinner party, he entertains guests with an impromptu piano recital but finds himself transfixed by a candle that puts him back in the tiny room he shared with Anna. Her voice is lost beneath the music, a splendid touch on Kheifits’ part. He could easily have shown her crying quietly, but it’s her voice that is lost. He doesn’t want to remember her asking him to think fondly of her. He feels ashamed that she ever felt the need to say so.
Their reunion is inevitable (it is Chekhov, after all. A love lost in the first act must be rekindled in the third), but only after we know what misery looks like etched on Gurov’s stoat-like features. Kheifits creates a bubble around him, one where the happiness of the present cannot find him. Not even a snowball thrown by a child rouses him from melancholy. When he meets her again, the fire returns to his eyes. He once more has purpose. Life in Moscow now looks to be an utter charade rather than merely a party he isn’t in the mood for. Savvina’s face is the greatest asset in these scenes because her earnest intensity looks always on the verge of melting into a puddle. Kheifits fondness for silence and allowing conversations to take long walks between words, coupled with the fragility of Savvina, means that when emotion breaks the spell, it’s titanic.
This movie breaks my heart, Veronika, because something so ordinary is treated like it could end the world at any moment. The world they belong to, of drawing rooms and opera houses and trains and toxic word of mouth, a precursor to the paranoid Soviet Union I know from American movies, will not allow their happiness. If this had been set in early 1900s New York or Jane Austen’s England, I would know the outcomes as part of a tradition of unhappiness. I wonder if there’s even a hint of autobiography here, if Kheifits was trying to make people understand what it felt like to be an artist during this period? To be a socialist at a time when great swathes of the world had made up its mind about you before ever meeting you. Being invited to a Russia I’d never known, a whole planet unto itself, made the emotions of star-crossed lovers seem twice as urgent and heart-stopping. Not only did their love seem impossible, it was then almost forgotten by time as the film faded into obscurity, replaced by a more homogenized idea of what Russian art was supposed to be capable of. Watching Lady with the Dog was like discovering a box in your attic full of love letters, pages soft to the touch from being folded up for years without contact or sunlight, and realizing that were it not for your eyes scanning each hand-written word, their contents would have been lost forever. That seems as fitting a way to start our correspondence as any, I think. I’m very curious to see what normal would look like just a few years down the line because from the perspective of a film made in 1960, just being an inactive member of a social order was fraught with hardships. Expectations plague and paralyze. I wonder if or how that changed? Hopefully you can help me uncover another piece of the puzzle.
All my best until next time,

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