by Walter Chaw
THE CHERRY ORCHARD (2000)
starring Tushka Bergen, Frances de la Tour, Charlotte Rampling, Gerard Butler
screenplay by Michael Cacoyannis, based on the play by Anton Chekhov
directed by Michael Cacoyannis
Written at the end of his life in 1904, "The Cherry Orchard" is the last of Anton Chekhov's great masterpieces, so ethereal it verges on the surreal and so circular it approaches the ineffable and the serene. The work is as balanced between its condemnation as it is winsome in its distillation of a lifetime spent in observation. By turns, it is also humanistic and mordantly funny, capturing a period of time (just prior to the Russian Revolution of 1905) in a way that perhaps no other play ever has any other period. Produced under some duress from Moscow Art Theater co-founders Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Chekhov began work on "The Cherry Orchard" in 1903--putting off the MAT pair with vague promises of a new farce or vaudeville. What he finally presented was what Stanislavsky feared: "...Instead of a farce again we shall have a great big tragedy."
Now nearing the end of his own life and career, 79-year-old director Michael Cacoyannis (77 at the time of the film's initial release) probably saw an adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" as a fitting coda for a career that reached its pinnacle with 1964's Zorba the Greek. As Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote in a letter dated April 25, 1896 about the calamitous failure of Chekhov's premiere of "The Seagull": "['The Seagull'] enthrals me and I will stake anything you like that these hidden dramas and tragedies in every character of the play, given a skilful...production without banalities, can enthral the auditorium, too." The key to this phrase is the necessity for Chekhov's works to be given a skilful production free of banalities--without an even hand and a firm understanding of the playwright's political and humanistic intentions. With the absence of an appreciation for Chekhov's economy and sly appreciation of farce, one is left with a stultifying disaster.
Michael Cacoyannis's The Cherry Orchard is just such a disaster. Detailing the last days of the discreet charm of the Russian bourgeoisie, the film revolves around the sale of the titular orchard and the Russian estate around which it grows, right out from under the vigorously unconcerned Ranyevskaya (Charlotte Rampling) and her brother Gayev (Alan Bates). It symbolizes, of course, the passing of an imperious age into the jaws of the looming Revolution (predicted by an escalating Sino-Russo conflict, the ineffectiveness of Czar Nicholas's reign, and the shocking disregard for the rights of the 1860-freed serfs), but rather than sadness, Chekhov expresses a kind of fatalistic melancholy: a sense of mourning tied with a recognition of change inevitable. Cacoyannis's vision is far less mature, interpreting the play as a call for pity and sympathy for anachronistic phantasms haunting the imagined glory of their own pasts.
The performances, particularly Rampling's blithely feckless Ranyevskaya, capture the appropriate level of ghostly detachment, but Cacoyannis's insistence that we feel sorry for these people is almost antithetical to Chekhov's balanced wisdom and leaves Rampling's turn adrift and embarrassed. I'm not entirely comfortable saying that the actress is terrible in The Cherry Orchard; sufficed to say that her character is lost in a bad interpretation. The direction is clunky, the cinematography is wrong, the attempts to spread out the film with a prologue backstory and an "expansion" of the interiors are wrong, and Ashkenazy's tinkling Tchaikovsky, functioning as an endless irritation beneath almost every scene (it recalls a silent-movie score in its insistence), is, yes, very wrong. Underlit and blocked exactly like a theatrical performance, The Cherry Orchard feels stagy. The only moment that rings with poetry is a closing champagne toast, recalling that the imbibing of champagne in the German medical tradition (the tradition in which Chekhov received treatment and last rites for his tuberculosis) is the pronouncement of hopelessness. Chin chin.
THE TRIUMPH OF LOVE (2001)
starring Mira Sorvino, Rachael Stirling, Ben Kingsley, Fiona Shaw
screenplay by Clare Peploe and Marilyn Goldin & Bernardo Bertolucci, based on the play by Marivaux
directed by Clare Peploe
It feels like there are ironic balloons floating about in Clare Peploe's smug The Triumph of Love (an adaptation of Marivaux's deeply unpleasant 1732 chamber farce), disembodied fingers pointing at moments meant to be clever and farcical that manage only to be fantastically staid plods through minefields of self-importance. The few aspects of this sadistic roundelay production worth noting are its set design and costuming, each expressing the jaunty vibrancy of the dusty genre that seems entirely beyond its mugging cast (save Fiona Shaw's heartbreaking turn). Mira Sorvino is terribly miscast as the conniving, cross-dressing Princess Aspasie, her dead eyes doing little to convey the spark of Puck-ish playfulness essential to forgive a character this devious and repugnant.
Princess Aspasie, it seems, falls in love with Agis (Jay Rodan) after spying him bathing in a pond. She then disguises herself as a man to seduce Agis's guardian, Leontine (Shaw), and acts as a woman to seduce Agis's other guardian, Leontine's brother Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley)--breaking hearts and raising hopes in a cruel attempt to clear a path to the stud. With poor timing, a surplus of jump-cuts, handheld camera vérité miscalculations, and disastrous musical cues, The Triumph of Love fails to arouse a giggle in the midst of its mean-hearted ribaldry. The lines are there, but the execution is terminal. With disassociative Nykvist breaks in the action to spy upon a modern garden audience that layers another level of conscious artificiality upon the roaring incompetence of the rest of the picture, The Triumph of Love is a terrible adaptation of a play that only ever walked the delicate tightrope between farcical and loathsome. In the wrong hands, i.e., Peploe's, it's simply unbearable.
WORLD TRAVELER (2001)
starring Billy Crudup, Francie Swift, Nicolas Suresky, David Keith
written and directed by Bart Freundlich
Kerouac by way of Pinter, Bart Freundlich's World Traveler is a back-loaded trip into a navel: portentous and ethereal yet tunnel-visioned and torturous. The film has a way with the obfuscating image that suggests the arrested detachment of its mid-lifer, Cal (Billy Crudup), but it does nothing to capture any joy in the fecklessness of the emotionally arrested, nor anything worth discovering in the vacuous jerk. Cal isn't looking for his inner-child, Cal is the hard-drinking, shiftless, disrespectful inner-child. No one--not his young son and wife, whom he abandons, nor the losers who befriend him along the way--benefits from his acquaintance. He never stops serving himself.
World Traveler feels like Five Easy Pieces in moments, but where Bob Rafelson's little masterpiece of unplugging spoke of a real generational chasm (as well as of star Jack Nicholson's own familial confusion), World Traveler is a poky and pseudo-serious exercise in sham actor workshops and affected malaise. Julianne Moore's fright-wigged mid-film appearance as an apparent catalyst for Cal's return to his father (David Keith) demonstrates what happens when an overpraised actress works with someone (i.e., real-life beau Freundlich) too in thrall of her to effectively rein her in (as was also the case in Freundlich's last film, The Myth of Fingerprints). At some point, I was reminded of Heather Graham's unfortunate speech in Ed Burns's likewise unfortunate Sidewalks of New York, wherein she philosophizes that people of her generation have no worries anymore and so engage in a process of "importance-finding." Both films, Burns's and Freundlich's, exist in a prelapsarian New York, and though I have serious doubts that either picture were worth much of a damn before 9/11, they're both unbearably twee and rudderless this soon after it.