Monday, June 13, 2011

Chekhov in 1960

Iosif Kheifits' 1960 film version of Anton Chekhov's classic short story, Lady with a Dog, captures the essence of the tale's tragic dimensions. In the film, a suave, sophisticated Dmitri Gurov, courts a a forlorn, bored, and beautiful Anna Sergeyevna. The backdrop to this adulterous affair is Yalta, depicted as a dull, slow-moving yet still stunningly picturesque coastal town. At first, the two protagonists are strangers to one another: the woman, little more than a distraction for Gurov, can only be seen as a "lady with a dog." But Gurov wastes little time in exploiting Anna's sadness, and we later learn, his own-- and the two consummate their romantic infatuation with one another in his seaside hotel room. Their parting is tender, but the director gives viewers no inkling that Gurov has been as affected by the vacation fling as Anna has been. He's kind and correct to her, but no more than kind and correct.

Next, we get a fuller glimpse of Gurov's normal life. He's a wealthy businessman, but his wealth stems from his heiress wife. Gurov's wife has no discernible flaw. An excellent mother to her children, who spends her time educating then, Gurov's wife is obviously very much in love with her dashing husband. She even loves her husband's gift for music, although she can't know that his passion for music reveals the lack of passion he feels for his current life. In attempt to divert himself, Gurov spends time at clubs, but to no avail. His brooding silence speaks volumes about his existential loneliness. The film never tells us whether Gurov's anguish stems from the fact that he is increasingly aware that he has fallen in love with Anna, the "lady with a dog." However, one suspects that Gurov's infatuation with Anna is the result and not the cause of his moody dissatisfaction with his present life. Why else was he taking a cure at Yalta, sans family, in the first place?

Chekhov used to say that life stories, unlike ordinary fictional ones, had no endings. People die of course, but death is usually not the end of the meaningful component of a person's life story. In the film version of Lady with a Dog, Iosif Kheifits is true to Chekhov's attitude toward plot. When Gurov finds Anna in her small town, rural hell, the two resume their affair. Yet it's entirely unclear how this affair will end. The two are in love, but they don't live in the same city, and who can say whether either Gurov or Anna will ultimately be willing to sacrifice their respective positions in society in the service of love?

And isn't this the nature of many an adulterous affair? The cheater is often paralyzed for months or even years at a time, unsure whether sexual satisfaction, or even love itself, is worth more or less than stability or moral or religious obligation. And of course many an adulterer never does make the kind of choice that would serve as a convenient plot point for a Hollywood movie ending. More often than not, the cheater's transgression is discovered. But does this discovery constitute a true ending, if it was never chosen by the protagonist? From the point of view of the cheater, it may be that irresolution and uncertainty is a more realistic "fade to black" ending than deliberate decision.

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