Bad day on the Black Sea

Pasatiempo - - Moving Images - Jonathan Richards

This adap­ta­tion of the great An­ton Chekhov’s novella of con­flict at the seashore joins such il­lus­tri­ous films as Wil­liam Shake­speare’s Romeo +

Juliet, Bram Stoker’s Drac­ula, and Danielle Steel’s No Greater Love in the name-within-the-ti­tle movie sweep­stakes. Maybe the pro­duc­ers of this story were wor­ried about it be­ing mis­taken for the 1971 Steven Spiel­berg high­way movie.

But this duel is about as far from the set­ting of Spiel­berg’s Duel as you can get. We are in a re­sort town on the Black Sea, some­time around the turn of the 20th cen­tury. The play­ers are an in­do­lent young civil ser­vant, Laevsky (An­drew Scott), who has lost his way, his pur­pose, and his self-re­spect and now spends most of his time drink­ing and play­ing cards; his mistress, Na­dia (Fiona Glas­cott), who has come away with him de­spite be­ing mar­ried to an­other man; and Von Koren (Tobias Men­zies), a stiff-necked zool­o­gist who dis­ap­proves of the way Laevsky treats Na­dia and of the way Laevsky does pretty much ev­ery­thing else.

Laevsky and Na­dia have been liv­ing in sin for a cou­ple of years now, and the bloom is off the rose. He would like to rid him­self of her but doesn’t quite know how these things are done. In any case, it might re­quire more en­ergy than he can muster.

“Tell me,” he asks his friend Samoylenko (Niall Buggy), the doc­tor, “what is the mean­ing of soft­en­ing of the brain?”

“How can I ex­plain it to you?” the doc­tor replies. “It’s a dis­ease in which the brain be­comes softer … as it were, dis­solves.”

Laevsky has just re­ceived news that Na­dia’s hus­band has died of soft­en­ing of the brain, which is bad news be­cause it re­moves the pro­tec­tive layer of mat­ri­mony from his tri­an­gu­lar equa­tion. But in a sense it is Laevsky who is suf­fer­ing from soft­en­ing of the brain. When he moved to the re­sort town, he had a ro­man­tic no­tion that he would give up the in­tel­lec­tual life and be­come a farmer. He’s man­aged the first part, but his am­bi­tions, which seemed so ide­al­is­tic and noble in the brac­ing chill of St. Peters­burg, have soft­ened and dis­solved in the hot, muggy south.

Na­dia has de­volved into a nag­ging flirt who sup­ple­ments their lack of in­come by trad­ing sex­ual fa­vors for the lat­est bon­net or para­sol. Laevsky doesn’t know about her in­dis­cre­tions; he just knows he wants out.

Von Koren is a sci­en­tist, a dis­ci­ple of Dar­win and Ni­et­zsche, a man with a strong sense of self-dis­ci­pline and a low thresh­old of ir­ri­ta­tion for a man like Laevsky. “He’s as dan­ger­ous to so­ci­ety as the cholera mi­crobe,” he grum­bles. “When the Laevskys mul­ti­ply, civ­i­liza­tion will de­gen­er­ate ut­terly. Mankind will per­ish.”

Laevsky doesn’t tell Na­dia right away about her hus­band’s death. He knows he should, but the tim­ing never seems quite right. Be­sides, he is per­fectly aware that once she is up to speed on the sit­u­a­tion, he will be faced with the pres­sure of mar­ry­ing the lady him­self. In­stead he treats her more and more churl­ishly and fi­nally thrusts the let­ter with the news into her hands muttering, “Here, this con­cerns you,” and goes out for a walk.

Aside from good looks, the Laevsky we see has prac­ti­cally noth­ing to rec­om­mend him. He’s a gam­bler, a drinker, an idler, he’s not nice to his lady, he in­sults his friends, and he has a moral flac­cid­ity that some­times de­gen­er­ates into hys­ter­ics.

By con­trast, Von Koren seems to have things to­gether. He’s a com­mit­ted sci­en­tist and a hard worker. But he has a ten­dency to ac­cen­tu­ate the neg­a­tive. As an­other char­ac­ter com­plains, when some­body ex­claims over the beauty of a bunch of grapes, Von Koren will re­mark on how ugly they are af­ter they’ve been chewed and di­gested.

Laevsky has got­ten him­self into his ro­man­tic sit­u­a­tion by sub­scrib­ing to the new moral­ity, while Von Koren is a devo­tee of Dar­win and the new sci­ence. In con­trast, Laevsky’s best friend is a man of sci­ence, the doc­tor Samoylenko, while Von Koren’s main con­fi­dant is a man of faith, a dea­con (Jeremy Swift).

When the pot boils over, Von Koren chal­lenges Laevsky to the con­fronta­tion fore­cast in the ti­tle. Du­el­ing in this era is pretty much a thing of the past, but both men feel honor-bound to go through with it. Von Koren as­sures the doc­tor that it will come to noth­ing: Laevsky, he pre­dicts, will fire into the air, and “I prob­a­bly won’t fire at all.”

But what­ever the out­come, a duel is apt to be a life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, one way or an­other.

The di­rec­tor is a Soviet-born Is­raeli, Dover Koshashvili ( Late Mar­riage, 2001), but the cast is mostly Ir­ish, and the movie is shot in English. The ac­tors are good, and the sense of place is ex­cep­tion­ally strong. Koshashvili and di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy Paul Sarossy give the im­me­di­acy of to­day to this lit­tle re­sort town in the Cau­ca­sus of 100 years ago (with the Croa­t­ian seaboard stand­ing in). The set­ting of the ti­tle event is spec­tac­u­lar, and all the pho­tog­ra­phy is won­der­ful. Koshashvili has a ten­dency to let things drag a bit too much, es­pe­cially in the movie’s first half; shots of faces and poses sub­sti­tute for sto­ry­telling, and in places the movie seems as lazy as Laevsky. But Chekhov’s story pro­vides a lot to chew on; and un­like the fate of the bunch of grapes, the beauty is still there at the fin­ish.

High noon in the Cau­ca­sus: Fiona Glas­cott and An­drew Scott

The bloom has worn off: Fiona Glas­cott

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