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'Duel' gives Chekhov piece its overdue due

I wanted to share my "coup de coeur" around my discovery of this brillant film produced by Donald Rosenfeld who brought us 4 masterpieces from James Ivory, including his best "Remains of the Day".

This is another delicate and smart story adapted from Anton Chekhov's novella THE DUEL.

Absolutely superb performances, brillantly shot by Dover Kosashvili.

I was about to write a lavish review when I found this one, by Michael Phillips, a Chicago Tribune Movie critic. I cannot resist sharing with you.

The film will be entering the festival circuit this spring, with a Market premiere in Cannes.

Do not miss it.

Read the review by Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune Movie critic.

The film will be entering the festival circuit this spring, witha Market premiere in Cannes.

Online screeners are available here.

"How deeply crazy we are (or can be) is best measured by the ravine separating our hopes from our realities. The vibrant new film adaptation of the Anton Chekhov novella "The Duel" understands this. It nails also the essential qualities of comic indolence and dangerous yearning in Chekhov, which have proved so elusive time after time, in adaptation after adaptation.

From the beginning - when Chekhov and his champion Stanislavksy fought over the relative seriousness of his material, Chekhov favoring the glancing dramatic touch - locating the wit in this wisest of all modern writers has been a treasure hunt. But whatever your previous cinematic experience with Chekhov (start, please, with "Vanya on 42nd Street" if you haven't seen it), whatever your resistance to typical, dutiful 19th century period pieces, this 95-minute achievement speaks for itself in murmurs and shouts and asides and soul-ripping cries of pain that are somehow also funny.

Shot in Croatia by a multiethnic crew of like-minded collaborators, "The Duel" looks beautiful, but it is not merely so. It doesn't carry the baggage of an important adaptation; it's deft, droll and languorously sexy. Director Dover Kosashvili, born in Soviet
Georgia and now based in Israel, is up to something more interesting than "important." His movie feels truly alive, and the actors - Irish, many of them - play boredom with exquisite nuance.

Boredom isn't really boredom, after all; often it's a code word for a much stronger and more provocative set of problems eating at people. The crazy one in "The Duel" isn't that much more delusional than anyone else living in the provincial Black Sea resort town where Chekhov sets his story. A finance minister flunky of uncertain duties, Laevsky has left Petersburg with his mistress, the married Nadya, with an idea toward a healthy new life together, working the land and breathing spiritually unpolluted air.

What has Laevsky done to cross the ravine between his hopes and his reality? Nothing. He is a layabout, a drinker, an inveterate card player, and as "The Duel" begins Laevsky withholds news from Nadya of her husband's death. Her widowhood will free her to marry Laevsky. But the man is scheming to return to Petersburg. Alone.

Laevsky's nemesis is a zoologist who sees the idler as subhuman, a destructive force in need of eradication. The two men are also friends, or used to be. They understand something in and of each other. It is these two, despite Nadya's dalliance with another, who end up with the pistols in "The Duel," and good-hearted intermediaries such as the town doctor cannot fathom why it has come to this.

Chekhov wrote "The Duel" in 1891, around the time he was revising an early failed play, "The Wood Demon," which became the masterwork we know as "Uncle Vanya." My wife describes "The Duel" as "a sideways 'Vanya'" in its tangle of relationships and rivalries. With the aid of screenwriter Mary Bing's astute compression of the original, the actors have all they need to bring this collection of seaside idlers and fish out of water to life.

When Andrew Scott's wild-eyed, aggressively insolent Laevsky begins to crack, we see it in a breakdown scene requiring the actor to laugh and cry and laugh and cry, in someone's drawing room. It's a terrific, frightening moment, the one in which we see just how desperate this character is to break out of circumstances of his own devising. As the icy zoologist, who is not quite what he seems, Tobias Menzies works in intuitive counterpoint. Fiona Glascott is a marvelous object of desire, a woman who (as Ibsen said of Hedda Gabler) may have poetry deep down, but all her finery and flirtation keep getting in the way. Only the insistent musical score by Angelo Milli pushes its luck.

In Scott's fascinating Laevsky we see a man who has stopped caring ("as one does"), a "Moscow Hamlet" who has a fierce sexual relationship with his mistress going for him but little else. Most of what's actable and exciting in "The Duel" comes from the original. But Chekhov has died a thousand slow deaths in the movies. It takes something like a miracle to unlock the magic in his exquisite aggravations, the essence of the human comedy. This film is indeed something like a miracle."

Cast: Andrew Scott (Laevsky); Fiona Glascott (Nadya); Niall Buggy (Samoylenko); Tobias Menzies (Von Koren); Mislav Cavajda (Kirilin)

Credits: Directed by Dover Kosashvili; written by Mary Bing, based on the novella by Anton Chekhov; produced by Donald Rosenfeld and Bing. A Highline Pictures release. Running time: 1:35.

Sales: Bristol Media International

Festival programmers : ask for your online screener:

"Glorious! Should delight audiences worldwide." - Ronnie Scheib, Variety

"Intelligently staged and impeccably crafted. The period atmosphere is sensuous." - J. Hoberman, Village Voice

"Very satisfying and tonally precise... believably inhabited, consistently surprising and true-feeling in detail and sweep."

- Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

"Gorgeous!" - Stanley Kauffmann, The New Republic

"Beautifully realized." - Stuart Klawans, The Nation

"The Georgian-born director, Dover Koshashvili (who made the bitterly funny LATE MARRIAGE), and the screenwriter, Mary Bing, have gotten the rough texture and the pitch, the music, exactly right. The rhythms are so evocative you'd think they'd unearthed a new (early) Chekhov play."

- David Edelstein, New York magazine

Save Shakespeare, Chekhov is the literary giant whose work is most frequently adapted for the screen. Based on his eponymous 1891 novella, THE DUEL gives life to a classic Chekhovian tale: the young ne'er-do-well aristocrat vs. the arrogant man of science; the attraction of a manipulative, narcissistic mistress vs. the life of the mind and of principled action. Gambling, alcohol and flirtations consummated in an impossibly beautiful countryside hold obvious attractions for Laevsky. But he's brought up short when financial ruin and his mistress's sexual dalliances lead to a violent denouement. Dover Kosashvili, director of LATE MARRIAGE, assembles a brilliant ensemble cast of British actors who strike just the right balance between intrigue and that particularly Russian brand of ennui we associate with Chekhov - but which today might elicit a prescription for Celexa.



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