The '68 Comback Special: Anna Karenina or The Living Dead Of The Moscow Aristocracy

David Cairns is quite simply one of the finest and most entertaining film writers there is. I've never met him in person (an ocean tragically separates us. Betcha can't guess which one!) but I consider him a friend all the same and lucky to have encountered his many talents and his graciousness as a human being. I've spent many trainrides scanning the back issues of his remarkable blog, Shadowplay. Our love of the odd, the uncanny and the specific (not to mention the British) in film connects us. He's also a dynamite filmmaker, but you must surely have known that! Last week he kicked off a joint project we're undertaking - an alternating investigation of the films due to play at the ill-fated 1968 Cannes Film Festival. His first piece features not just an incredibly incisive written commentary, but a rich video essay he made with the help of Timo Langer. Next week he'll pick up the gauntlet I throw down here and on we'll go until we've left our brand on every film meant to sweep audiences off their feet that year. The story of the festival has more or less usurped the historical importance of any work scheduled, which is a sad thing indeed. We're aiming to shed a little more light (I've already done a little) on these landmark works and maybe pick some winners just for fun. This next film and I have something of a history...
Orson would have fit nicely into the film, come to think of it...

In my sophomore year at Emerson College in Boston, I lived a solitary life in a grungy apartment in Lechmere, or as its known locally, that part of town where nobody goes. My days were pretty routine: go to class, eat, go to the Boston Public Library and rent ten DVDs from their basement - naturally they put the foreign films where sunlight couldn't touch them or the creeps who wanted them. I discovered not one but two films that played the 1968 Cannes Film Festival while I was a regular there. The first was Miklós Jancsó's The Red & The White, a film that I recognized right away as a masterpiece. It perplexed me that something that dripped with greatness in the way this did could possibly be left off most canonical lists I'd encountered, but also entirely off my film school curriculum. Maybe the loss at the festival had kept it off that many more radars? Likely as not it wouldn't have made much of a difference. After all, when's the last time anyone talked about Chronicles of the Years of Fire or The Hireling? The other competition entry I found was Alexsandr Zarkhi's Anna Karenina, which kicked my brain's ass. 
I'd picked it up because I'd recognized Tatyana Samoylova on the DVD box. I still had a mad crush on the feisty revolutionary bride from Kalatozov's The Cranes Are Flying and figured this would be as good a showcase as any for her. I quickly lost myself in the plot, thinking the movie was just a little too kind to the Tolstoy and subsequently had no cinematic fire in its guts. And the way they'd dressed and presented Samoylova just seemed so...wrong. Her expressions seemed to be a series of lies.  Anyone who's seen The Cranes Are Flying knows what truth looks like when it burns across someone's determined face. It was a joyless watch, and in my state (hungry, cold, miserable, living with only insects in a filthy apartment no one ever visited) was too much for me to handle. A second viewing explained that that was indeed the point. The most successful adaptations of Karenina have to accept this up front and find a way through it or find a way around it. Joe Wright's version might be my favourite, not because it's revolutionary in the telling, but because he and Tom Stoppard made its heroes actors and boorish theatre patrons for the audience/aristocracy (audienstocracy? I'll work on that) to gawk at. The story has been told so many times that you've got to supercharge your grammar. Zarkhi's choice - to go right up to the edge of horror and pull back at the last moment - is a good one but it doesn't let an audience breathe or find anything resembling hope within the already very sad story. 
Zarkhi frames everyone who isn't one of our four or five leads as if they were the living dead. Across the Croisette, Dominique Delouche was trying much the same thing with his version of 24 Hours In the Life of a Woman but his mode is different. If Delouche was in the realm of Carnival of Souls or the later Daughters of Darkness then Anna Karenina is clearly at a ball thrown by Hammer Studios. The make-up sits nicely between vampire and zombie and wasn't the ghastly pallor of the filthy rich practically the British studio's greatest weapon after Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing? Rodion Shchedrin's music is so overpowering it seems like some of James Bernard's more insistent brass. What's fascinating is that it also anticipates the direction the studio would take. The colour scheme and montage that would fit comfortably in Demons of the Mind or Hands of the Ripper. Everything here spells fright and cruelty, from red-and-blue-tinted erotic nightmares, dances that turn into churning maelstroms and people failed by man and beast with disastrous consequences. And certainly the ending is about as subtle as anything in Rasputin, The Mad Monk, but we can't entirely blame our director for that, rampaging music and psychological lighting notwithstanding. 
But of course the horror we're meant to notice is that of the stifling life Anna is doomed to if she doesn't flee. Zarkhi overplays his hand a touch here. Anyone who didn't know how it ends will have guessed by the time Anna boards the coach to Oblonsky's house. Everyone around her is dead. The production design, make-up and mise-en-scene make it perfectly clear where she's headed. Zarkhi essentially treats her near-death disease as her entry into purgatory and from then on she looks as though she's just missed the train to hell. Complimenting or criticising this movie is a little tricky because it clearly accomplishes its goals, but in so doing have made a sort of horrific living wax museum drama. Zarkhi had been making films for forty years when he made Karenina and his hand is steady, to say the least. The cinematography is showy but engrossing. Between the constant woozy motion around drawing rooms, theatres and gardens and the fact that the film appears to be flickering as if through a candle-powered projector, it looks and acts like almost no other film. It's sort of Barry Lyndon but capable of running at speeds up to Ken Russell. There are some truly unforgettable images and scenes here like the single breath-taking shot where a character decides to take his own life. What makes that more miraculous is that it's followed closely by the film's most lighthearted moment: Kitty and Levin struggling with their ring fingers, which looks too perfect to have been planned. Those graceful acceptances of human behavior made this deliberately heavy film seem worth its terrors. 

2 comments:

D Cairns said...

"It's sort of Barry Lyndon but capable of running at speeds up to Ken Russell." Beautiful! And makes me eager to see it. And a little afraid.

Scøut said...

I'd be very curious to hear your reaction to it. It's sort of Von Sternbergy; if JVS never worked in colour this luscious, and gotten reeeeal nihilistic.