‘Anton Chekhov’s The Duel’ an exercise in ennui
It might surprise 19th Century Russian playwright Anton Chekhov to see naked women in a adaptation of his work. But it’s not entirely gratuitous in Anton Chekhov’s The Duel, an international co-production of a Chekhov novella whose heroine, a young society matron transplanted to a sleepy seaside resort in the Caucuses, is so ripe for life, she’s fairly bursting out of her corsets. Which makes her the perfect visual and emotional contrast to the story’s protagonist, a slight, sallow, petulant malcontent whose only response to the natural beauty of both the seaside and his mistress is profound boredom.
It’s all about ennui in this delicately rendered drama of morality and malaise, discontent and redemption. Shot in lovely Croatia with a mostly Irish/British cast, it was directed by Russian Georgian-born Israeli filmmaker Dover Kosashvili, whose first film, Late Marriage, also dealt with a fellow at odds with society and himself over his love life. But while that protagonist tilted against repressive traditions, the anti-hero of The Duel has none but himself to blame for his small-minded, all-consuming boredom. To its credit, the film captures his sense of trapped, choking ennui to perfection, but we wish Kosashvili had come up with a better way to convey it than asking the audience to sit through 95 enervating minutes that feel like days.
Ivan Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a young aristocrat from St. Petersburg who was evidently something of a bon vivant in the city, has fled to the seaside with another man’s wife, the creamy, beauteous Nadia (Fiona Glascott). Charmed by the vision of going back to nature and starting up their own vineyard, he’s taken a civil servant job that requires him to do exactly nothing and pays less; now they’re stuck in a bourgeois house struggling to pay their bills at the dressmaker’s shop. Quickly bored by the lack of society in the provincial town, Ivan is also tired of Nadia and privately scheming to find a way to abandon her and get back to St. Petersburg— hopefully before she learns that her husband has died and starts demanding a marriage.
Nadia, meanwhile, has no idea why Ivan has begun to absent himself from her, physically (except for very occasional sex play) and emotionally. All she knows is that he’s becoming increasingly dissolute and frantic around the edges. But while he’s off all day drinking and playing cards with his lowlife buddies, vibrant but neglected Nadia is attracting the attention of other males in town. Some are predatory, while the scholarly visiting zoologist, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies), observes with caustic hostility how Ivan’s sneering disdain toward Nadia and everyone else (Von Koren compares him to “the cholera microbe”) is poisoning the welfare of the town.
But once this premise is set up, it’s explicated tediously over the next hour or more in which nothing happens: bathers bathe in the sea, various men make sheep’s eyes at Nadia, Von Koren debates moral law and creationism with the jovial priest, Ivan goes more and more bonkers at public gatherings, Nadia languishes. By the time someone is (finally) challenged to the eponymous duel, the audience is as tired of all of them as Ivan is of Nadia. And even that protracted climax is allowed to dribble away to nothing.
The script by Mary Bing is so intent on capturing every nuance and undercurrent of the Chekhovian social order, she forgets to tell a dynamic motion picture story. The accumulated psychological details that create milieu on the page don’t always translate to a narrative that’s interesting to look at onscreen. But where Bing’s adaptation does wake up and become briefly compelling is in the scenes when Nadia begins to realize how precarious her position is—and how dwindling her options—after her husband has died, if Ivan does not offer her the protection of a new marriage. When a smooth older woman gives her a no-nonsense earful, or the most dangerous of her suitors maneuvers her into his web, Nadia’s plight feels urgent, and this lovely film (momentarily) regains a pulse.
THE DUEL ★★
With Andrew Scott, Fiona Glascott, and Tobias Menzies. Written by Mary Bing, from the novella by Anton Chekhov. Directed by Dover Kosashvili. A Highline Pictures release. Not rated. 95 minutes.