The Thing With Feathers
A work of loose-limbed equanimity, Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street is a movie that shouldn’t work. Its premise is not a little gimmicky: a filming of a stripped-down production of a Chekhov play, unembellished by costumes, period sets, or other trappings of cinematic verisimilitude. With its earnest appreciation of “process” threatening to lurch into dewy-eyed adulation of Actors, the French director’s valentine to both theater and Chekhov could’ve easily become an empty spectacle of narcissism and self-congratulation. Thank god for its maker’s refinement—not to mention the luminous source text.
A lesser filmmaker could’ve easily botched this project, but only an adventurous one could’ve dreamed it up in the first place. Beginning in 1989, theater director Andre Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn started a theatrical experiment: they gathered other actors and began performing Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya around New York City. Performing in any space they could find, the troupe did away with the accoutrements of a full-fledged production. The words, and their transformation into drama, were all that mattered.
Malle caught one of those performances and suggested making a film of it. Released in 1994, Vanya on 42nd Street went on to earn near-unanimous praise, making numerous ten best lists. Salon‘s Charles Taylor even put it at the top of his best-of-the-decade roundup. That assessment may be wildly hysterical, but I can understand his enthusiasm. Elastic yet precise, Malle’s film has the vitality and vividness of a Renoir—it breathes. The movie is the product of an unfailingly generous sensibility.
Vanya on 42nd Street may not be his greatest film, as Taylor trumpets, but it’s more than a worthy capper to Malle’s brilliant career. A year after the movie’s release, Malle succumbed to lymphoma. It’s not just his passing—and the knowledge that the movie is his last—that imbues the new DVD with an elegiac tint. Shot in the then-dilapidated confines of the New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, in a pre-Giuliani, pre-Disney Times Square, the movie can evoke something akin to nostalgia in its opening street passages. (Knowing that the refurbished New Amsterdam is now home to the bombastic Lion King certainly laces the viewing experience with irony.)
Using an adaptation of the play by David Mamet (who in turn used Vlada Chernomordik’s translation of the play), Malle shoots Vanya with affectless intimacy. Mamet’s version sounds more colloquial, at least compared to the only version I’ve ever read, and Malle matches that style with a nimble visual approach. The elegant cinematography is an object lesson in directorial humility: every shot is designed to serve the story. The unerring camera placement and caressing close-ups lull you. The end of each act comes as a jolt, as the small audience of friends viewing the performance comes into view again—you forget that they’re there. Considering the production can call attention to itself in any number of ways, Vanya is a unusually hypnotic experience.
The play proper begins without warning. One moment, actors Larry Pine and Phoebe Brand are exchanging idle chitchat; the next, she offers him vodka, and it is Chekhov’s words we hear. Subtitled “Scenes From a Country Life,” Uncle Vanya is set in a provincial estate that an unhappy family calls home. Professor Serybryakov (George Gaynes) has just returned to his country manor, his beautiful and much younger wife Yelena (Julianne Moore) in tow. Tending to the estate in all the professor’s years of absence have been Vanya (Wallace Shawn) and Sonya (Brooke Smith), his brother-in-law and daughter from his first marriage. Also living at the estate are Maman (Lynn Cohen), his mother-in-law; Marina (Brand), Sonya’s wizened nanny; and Waffles (Jerry Mayer), a family friend. Astrov (Pine), the town doctor, is a frequent visitor, tending to the cranky professor’s myriad ailments.
The professor’s return upsets the estate’s mundane equilibrium. The whiff of frustration and regret permeates the play at the outset. Astrov laments his sense of isolation in the small town; Vanya ruminates bitterly about his lost years, the squandered possibilities. Yelena, indolent and ravishing, has infused their dull world with the glimmer of beauty and possibility. Life may have been unhappy before for these country folk, but at least they were always too busy to notice. Yelena’s presence seems a rebuke to their years of mindless toil.
“This is not a happy home,” observes one character. Chekhov’s play is a mosaic of muffled sobs and consoling swigs of vodka. Vanya himself is the narrative’s dramatic engine: everyone suffers silently, but he rages, lashing out after realizing that his life has been spent doing meaningless work. Shawn has never displayed great range as an actor, but his Vanya is an altogether singular creation—poignant, if not maddeningly mercurial. If Vanya is the play’s catalyst for melodrama, Astrov is its composed spokesman. A man of culture and refinement, Astrov speaks eloquently of the town’s parochialism, its crudeness and simplicity. As played by Pine, the doctor is less despairing than resigned, a stoic champion of reason fighting a losing battle against the creeping mediocrity and meanness of his environment.
Robert Brustein, The New Republic‘s theater critic, identified that struggle—“the degeneration of culture in the crude modern world”—as the gist of Chekhov’s plays. If that is so, a faint hope in the teleological progression of mankind is his characters’ common consolation. Astrov speaks repeatedly of mankind hundreds of years into the future, allowing for the possibility that the miserable present can serve as a foundation for a happier morrow. In Chekhov’s Three Sisters, a character recites the hope more explicitly: “In two or three hundred years… a new, happy life will dawn. We’ll have no part in that life, of course, but we are living for it now, working, yes, suffering, and creating it…”
By the end, even Vanya has been pacified, resigned to accept that the rest of his life will not be any easier than the years behind him. In one of the most heartbreaking monologues in all of drama, Sonya consoles her uncle, conjuring a blissful eternity earned through their suffering: “[W]e’ll look back on this life of our unhappiness with tenderness, and we’ll smile—and in that new life we shall rest, uncle.” At once compassionate and doleful, Sonya’s words are a moving expression of hope born of desperation. Chekhov guarantees neither a better future nor a transcendent afterlife, but his characters don’t really have much of a choice. Between suffering and death, they choose suffering—and cling to hopes that it may all be worth something in the end.