Anton Chekhov's novella "The Duel" is among his most extended pieces of fiction, and yet it has the gracefully digressive shape of one of his classic short stories. Its voluminous cast of characters would also seem right at home on stage.
Or, as it turns out, on screen. The Georgian-born Israeli director, Dover Koshashvili, and his screenwriter, Mary Bing, have done a generally commendable job of movie-izing the novella without losing its distinctive Chekovian flavor. They understand that, although the action leads inevitably to a duel between two men who loathe each other, melodrama was the last thing on Chekhov's mind. As always, he was supremely interested in everything in life surrounding the main event.
The film, marvelously acted, features an archetypal Chekhovian antihero, Laevsky (Andrew Scott), an aristocratic civil servant who has brought his married mistress Nadia (Fiona Glascott) with him to a Black Sea resort in the Caucasus in hopes of living a "modern" life together.
But Laevsky, it turns out, is a woebegone dissolute who spends his time drinking and playing cards. He seeks a way to abandon Nadia, whose wanton situation has made her a pariah anyway except to a cadre of lecherous would-be suitors poised to take advantage of her misery.
Laevsky's counterpart is the zoologist Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), who despises the aristocrat's whiny lassitude. He regards it as a crime against the human species. Von Koren isn't entirely wrong about Laevsky, and yet his rationalist's ferocity carries with it a scary, crypto-Fascist sense of entitlement.
These two men are fated to cross each other because in the natural order of things they are natural enemies. Their enmity is played out against breathtaking seaside vistas that only reinforce how befouled the atmosphere has become.
Koshashvili, whose first film was the extraordinarily erotic "Late Marriage," brings out the carnality in this material to an extent that didn't exist on the page. Nadia, with her doleful sensuality and bright white skin, is like a porcelain coquette. Her fragility is both an affront and a lure to her admirers.
Chekhov's stories and plays often vibrate in that zone where comedy and tragedy are indistinguishable. And so it is with this movie. The characters are never certain whether they should be laughing or crying at their travails, and so they do both (and we along with them). Laevsky is a self-dramatizing boor and yet he is in real pain; Nadia's flirtations are undercut by fear.
The only person who seems to have his head on straight is the bewhiskered town doctor Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), who tries to referee the two men. He sees much to like in both and complains ominously to Laevsky: "You glare at each other like wolves."
Koshashvili may, in the end, be too temperate a soul to do full justice to Chekhov. The cosmic joke in the novella is that, after all the tumult subsides, nothing has radically changed: Misery has simply acquired a different demeanor.
In the movie, life lessons are learned and everybody is the better for it. Decency reigns. Chekhov was never meant to be this instructional.
If you love Chekhov, I urge you to seek out "The Lady with the Dog" (1962), the finest movie adaptation of his work I have ever seen, and one of the greatest of all postwar Russian films.
Also right up there is Louis Malle's "Vanya on 42nd Street" (1994), which revolves around a mid-town Manhattan staged reading of "Uncle Vanya" and is peerlessly performed by, among others, Wallace Shawn, Brooke Smith, and Julianne Moore. Grade: B+ (Unrated.)
More Monitor reviews