The characters of Arthur Allan Seidelman’s The Sisters are not unlike a set of Russian matryoshka nesting dolls: attractive cognoscenti who live a larger than life existence. But as you carefully shift through their many layers, you find that they are really just small, fragile replicas of their illusory selves, marred by old wounds and memories of the past, living amidst a “quicksand of myths and half-truths”. Seidelman’s drama is a complex rendition of an adaptation of an adaptation, the screenplay written by Richard Alfieri who wrote a play entitled The Sisters upon which the film is based. That play in turn was based (or as Alfieri asserts “suggested”) on Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, an early 20th century play about the Prozorov sisters; Olga, Masha, and Irina, and their brother, Andrey. The family maintains a dull existence in a small, provincial Russian town. Only the diversion afforded by the ever-present dream of someday moving to Moscow, the city of light and culture, and the men in their lives, keep the sisters going from one drab day to the next.
Fast forward 100 or so years and enter the lives of Olga, Marcia, and Irene Prior, along with their brother Andrew. The Priors are a group of scholars living in New York City who have created a life buttressed by education and other intellectual pursuits. The faculty lounge, where the preponderance of the film is shot, is at once highbrow and homey, retaining on one hand the cloistered sense of academia that the family so craves while simultaneously providing a surrogate home for the sisters reminiscent of their childhood home in Charleston, South Carolina. The oldest child, Olga (played by the masterful Mary Stuart Masterson), is the rock; “the serious one”. She is the cool, calm center of the family. Her use of analytical reasoning and academic barter is actually a façade masking her intensely repressed emotional state and closeted lesbianism. Marcia recounts to Vincent Antonelli (played by Tony Goldwyn), an envoy from their past in Charleston who becomes her eventual lover, “Father wanted a boy first, so Olga gave up her femininity for him”.
It turns out that all three sisters and Andrew crafted themselves into particular roles and people to suit their demanding father’s needs. Olga became the “boy” her father so desperately wanted. Marcia (played by the wonderful Maria Bello), the second child, “the beautiful one”, adopted the role of ultra feminine, taking her mother’s place after her passing. “I was the midget Scarlet O’ Hara, a gracious Southern belle, a child prodigy Martha Stewart” she proclaims. She became the woman of the house. It was quite literally that Marcia took her mother’s role; her father repeatedly molested her during her pubescent years. As an adult, Marcia has embodied the role of the “beautiful one” but her incessant verbal assaults, volcanic outbursts, and emotional eruptions speak volumes about her psychological state.
And then there is Andrew (played marvelously by Alessandro Nivola) who came up in a house where there could be only one “man”. “I suppose I fared better than Andrew”, states Marcia, “...who had to hand his balls over to father… only one pair allowed in the house at a time, you know. After father died, Andrew got them back but strangely enough he keeps looking for someone else to give them to. Olga and I passed them back and forth for a while but we really didn’t want them… He finally found a real taker in Nancy who it seems had been looking for an extra pair for quite some time”. Nancy (played by Elizabeth Banks), Andrew’s girlfriend and later fiancé, is working class with a heavy Brooklyn accent, completely antithetical to the intelligentsia and education that the Priors, specifically Olga and Marcia, hold so dear. Thus, conflict ensues. The sisters recognize that Nancy is controlling and conniving but Andrew’s character weaknesses disallow him to see any of this. The two sisters, primarily Marcia, publicly berate Nancy for her crass speech and dress. And finally there is Irene (played by the convincing Erika Christensen) who Marcia stipulated “emerged unscathed” as their father died when Irene was very young, too young to absorb any of the oppressiveness of the house. As it turns out, Irene is just as affected by the events of the past as her sisters.
The women in this film are complex and multi-layered, stymied by memories and events of the past. The collective dream of the sisters is to leave New York, the city of culture and light, and return to the provincial, mythical charm of their family home in Charleston. The men in their life further complicate matters. Dr. Chebrin, one of the professors at the college and a personal friend of the family, is, as director Arthur Allan Seidelman and writer Richard Alfieri offer in the audio commentary, “...a Greek chorus, viewing them objectively, acutely aware of their frailties and foibles”. Dr. Chebrin is the independent observer of all the characters, documenting the conflicts, frailties, and demons that plague each character.
Throughout the film, Andrew attempts to reclaim his masculinity within his family. His fiancé, Nancy, encourages him to sell the family house in Charleston, which he does, in a fragile attempt to reclaim and assert his masculinity while Nancy’s motive is money. But not only does Andrew not reclaim his masculinity, he crushes the dreams of his sisters who long to return to Charleston. He’s sold the soul of the family for money. Marcia’s unhappy marriage to therapist Harry (played by Stephen Culp) is exacerbated by her affair with Vincent. At the end of the film, both these relationships are ruined. Irene is the object of affection for two friends: David Turzin (played by Chris O’Donnell) and Gary Sokol (played by Eric McCormick). For the first half of the film, David’s love for Irene is seen by everyone but her as he’s unable to fully communicate his feelings for her, to her. Eventually, her love is requited. The love that blossoms between the two poses the second major conflict of the film. Sokol, a cynically humorous character, brims with an ever increasing anger at the relationship between his friend and the woman he loves. Throughout the film, he slowly changes; becoming more and more nihilistic, stygian, and cynical, eventually precipitating an act of violence that changes all characters involved.
The action in the film always happens indoors. If the characters are outside, they are hurriedly trying to get inside, to secure themselves away from the chaos and violence of outside. But as director Seidelman states, “...the violence lies within”. The Sisters depends heavily on dialogue: hyperbolic wit, references to canonical literature, and verbal agility. The acting, particularly by Bello, is outstanding, but the pain of the each individual character becomes a character in and of itself, driving each person to extreme choices.
Towards the end of the film, Dr. Chebrin performs his daily ritual of reading the newspaper aloud which, infuriates Sokol. He reads, “A woman in Riverdale was raped by a man she refused to go to the prom with ten years ago. Imagine carrying that kind of resentment around for ten years”. Comparably, each character carries around their particular demons, which manifest into resentment, longing, repressed sensuality, or anger. Thankfully, Seidelman ends the movie upon a note hope. In the end, that’s all these characters can wish for.