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The rules of his game

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 20, 2010

In AN UNFINISHED PIECE FOR PLAYER PIANO (January 29 and 30), his 1977 film of Platonov, Nikita Mikhalkov starts from The Rules of the Game. His camera travels through the rural estate of Anna Voinitseva (Antonina Shuranova), picking up the farcical behavior of her bored guests, who are wasting their lives while they break their own and one another's hearts. It's an extremely accomplished piece of filmmaking, lushly shot by Aleksandr Adabashian (who wrote the screenplay with Mikhalkov) and Aleksandr Samulekin. There are some magnificent images, like one of a boy in a pristine white uniform and cap under an umbrella on the shore of a lake in a rainstorm. Afterward, you retain the faces of the two younger women, the porcelain Sashenka (Evgenia Glushenko), who's married to the clownish schoolmaster Platonov (Aleksandr Kalyagin), and Sophia (Elena Solovey), who looks like a silent-screen star and is the new bride of Anna's stepson Sergei (Yuri Bogatyryov) — though it turns out she once had a romance with Platonov from which she's never recovered.

The problem with the picture is that Mikhalkov lacks Renoir's compassion — and Chekhov's. There's a distinctly Soviet disdain for these remnants of the pre-revolutionary world, and whereas the farce in The Rules of the Game critiques the aristocracy of the French nouveaux riches without distancing itself from them, Mikhalkov takes a little too much pleasure in making them look ridiculous. (It doesn't help that his approach to farce is to knock it out with a hammer.) And you can't stop thinking that he wants us to see that angelic child, who's silently watching his elders make fools of themselves, as a symbol for Russia's future, when the country will throw off such misguided values.

The less said about Kira Muratova's incomprehensible CHEKHOV'S MOTIFS (January 28) the better; it's like a wretched experimental student film stretched out to two unwatchable hours. And WARD NO. 6 (January 27 and 30), made last year by Karen Shakhnazarov and set in contemporary Russia, is a bad mistake. He and his co-writer, Aleksandr Borodyansky, stick fairly close to the narrative of Chekhov's story about a doctor at an asylum in a small town who winds up as one of its inmates, but his approach — to present it as a documentary interviewing those who have interacted with Dr. Ragin (Vladimir Ilyin) — is perversely undramatic. He breaks away from this form for a handful of flashbacks, but his inconsistency is puzzling, and he doesn't have a sure enough hand with his actors to make these scenes work.

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