Vol 1, No 11
6 September 1999
K A R L O V Y V A R Y:|
Chekhov's Post-perestroika Russia:
Sergei Sniezhkin's Cvety kalenduly
Andrew J Horton
Of all the national cinemas in the world, that of Russia has the most fruitful relationship with literature. This extends beyond the dull and plodding genre of the literary adaptation or the more general "book of the film" treatment to any novel whose widespread success uninspired directors want to cash in on. Russians filmmakers have managed to be inspired by literature in the artistic and spiritual sense rather than just finding a plot idea which will bring in the punters.
As such, literature is a point of departure for many Russian filmmakers and not something whose content merely can be replicated in another medium. This has produced a number of adaptations which seem to merit consideration independently of the text on which they were based, including Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg's Shinel' (The Overcoat, 1927), Andrei Tarkovsky's Soliaris (1969-72), Alexei German's Moi drug Ivan Lapshin (My Friend Ivan Lapshin, 1983) and much of Alexandr Sokurov's oeuvre.
However, the influence of literature extends far beyond using books as a direct source. Sergei Sniezhkin's Cvety kalenduly (Marigolds in Flower, 1998) is a film which takes its inspiration from the great Russian dramatist and short-story writer Anton Chekhov without its plot being directly based on any of his published works.
The action takes place in a dacha just outside St Petersburg some time shortly after the collapse of Communism. The removal of the tyrannical regime has done nothing to relieve the ills of the Protazovs and it has if anything made them worse. Georgia Protazov was a poet who collaborated heavily with the Party and in return was feted as a national hero. However, with the coming of perestroika his reputation was re-evaluated and murky truths dug up from his past. What is more, the MTV generation now has little interest in poetry and literature, least of all Protazov.
This humiliating fall from grace is too much for Protazov's widow, Seraphima, who had her heart set on a place in posterity, rather than infamy, for her husband. If that wasn't bad enough, she has to battle with her family over what to do with the inherited dacha. She wants to create a museum to her late husband, while her three bitchy granddaughters would rather sell up and move to the city for a more adventurous life.
In the midst of this set of mutually antagonistic personalities, arrive two men who offer more money to spend the night in the spare room than can possibly be refused, even if it is the night of carnival-style family celebrations for Seraphima's birthday. However, they have more in mind than just staying the night in the dacha.
Sniezhkin, who co-wrote the screenplay with Mikhail Konvalchuk, certainly has the keen eye for the minutiae of human behaviour necessary to pull this kind of film off. With the action rarely extending beyond the walls of the dacha, Sniezhkin has to rope in all the attention to the details of character he can without going overboard and making his characters overly stylised. This he manages to achieve with only occasional lapses of judgement.
Not only that, Konvalchuk and Sniezhkin have attempted a brave plot which tackles both specific issues of the post-perestroika period and more timeless observations. As the production notes rightly say: "A century has passed [since Chekhov's time] and Russia hasn't changed much, despite revolutions and wars."
However, Sniezhkin is rather better at slowly unfolding his plot than he is in drawing it to a logical close and the final unification of the family in laughter might seem a little unconvincing to some. This clearly dents the impact of an otherwise tightly controlled plot. As a result, Cvety kalenduly emerges as an interesting and fulfilling film, but not nearly as rich as engaging as that other recent Russian film to draw on the legacy of Chekov, Nikita Mikhalkov's Oscar-winning portrait of the brutalities of Stalinism, Utomlennye solntsem (Burnt by the Sun, 1994)
That said, it clearly stands out as vastly superior to the concept of straight literary adaptation. Another film inspired by Chekhov, this time Czech in origin, illustrates the point admirably. Dan Krames's Agata (Agatha, 1998), also shown at Karlovy Vary this year, is literary adaptation at its simplest level. Admittedly you have to admire the breath-taking photography by Radek Chmel which is the analogue of Chekhov's light and delicate prose. However, the film is empty and unsatisfying, with Chekhov's words - masterly in print - sounding awkward when translated as a screenplay and the thoughts left untold and unportrayed. It is, in short, Chekhov with all the emotion taken out.
Cvety kalenduly may well have its faults but it is certainly worthy of attention and will remain interesting for some years. And whatever film historians may think of this particular work, it demonstrates that literature and cinema have a unique relationship in Russia.
Andrew J Horton, 6 September 1999
Click here for the first in this pair of articles on "chamber films" which are character-driven.
Kinoeye at Karlovy Vary
The following is a list of other films shown at Karlovy Vary which have been covered by Kinoeye.
Pelisky (Cosy Dens) by Jan Hrebejk, Czech Republic
Co chytnes v zite (In the rye) by Roman Vavra, Czech Republic
Pripyat (Pripyat) by Nikloaus Geyrhalter, Austria
Rychle pohyby oci (Rapid Eye Movement) by Radim Spacek, Czech Republic
Totalitarnii roman (Totalitarian Romance) by Viacheslav Sorokin, Russia
Tri muskarca Melite Zganjer (Melita and her Three Men) by Snejzana Tribuson, Croatia
Demony wojny wedlug Goi (Demons of War by Goya) by Wladyslaw Pasikowski, Poland
Blokpost (Checkpoint) by Alexandr Rogozhkin, Russia
Tockovi (Wheels) by Djordje Milosavljevic, Yugoslavia
Gengszterfim (Gangster Film) by Gyorgy Szomjas, Hungary
Nekem lampast adott kezembe as Ur Pesten (The Lord's Lantern in Budapest) by Miklos Jancso, Hungary
Krava (The Cow) by Karel Kachyna, Czech Republic
Okraina (Outskirts) by Peter Lutsik, Russia
Pasti, pasti, pasticky (Traps) by Vera Chytilova, Czech Republic
Kinai vedelem (Chinese Defence) by Gabor Tompa, Hungary
Copyright (c) 1999 - Central Europe Review and Internet servis, a.s.
All Rights Reserved