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The rules of his game

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  January 20, 2010

But the MFA offers Chekhov lovers a rare opportunity to see Iosif Kheifits's 1959 THE LADY WITH THE DOG (January 30), a superb small film that's been unjustly overshadowed by Mikhalkov's 1987 version, Dark Eyes. (This happy omission from the series compounds the flaws of An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano and compensates with none of the virtues.) The Lady with the Dog is, like Max Ophüls's The Earrings of Madame de . . ., about a shallow human being who's unexpectedly deepened by love. In the opening sequence, which is set in Yalta around the turn of the century, Dmitri Gurov (Alexei Batalov), who's drunk at a café with a friend, discusses the possibility of making the acquaintance of a lovely woman he's seen promenading alone by the sea with her little dog. A moment later, she appears, in the distance, through the open windows of the café, which frame her like an image in a portrait. This scene suggests Renoir or Ray, but the tone is different, and the style suggests elements of vaudeville and an almost stage-set formality enhanced by the fact that the screen is so sparsely populated. Gurov is handsome, but he looks somewhat gone to seed — he has a sort of roué look. We deduce that he has had previous extramarital experiences, and it's easy for him to seduce Anna Sergeevna (Iya Savvina). But the affair (she's also married, unhappily) means more to her. Before they return to their separate homes in Moscow and Saratov, she predicts that he'll think back on their relationship lightly, as a seaside romance with a lady with a little dog. And at first, she's right. But in Moscow, Gurov finds himself, against his will, thinking of her, and then he becomes obsessed with her. He becomes melancholy, rueful, and his feelings take over the mood of the movie.

Kheifits is a painterly director who creates elegant tableaux. His style is a strange, affecting combination of the romantic and the impressionistic. In the Yalta scenes he keeps presenting the couple against the backdrop of the sea and the sky, at different times of the day, in different weathers, like a series of Monet paintings. Here they're in holiday time, their romance springing up in a kind of unreal world, a vacation world. The problem for both of them — first Anna and then Gurov — is that what happens between them generates a power too great to be contained in a holiday memory, so it poisons the lives they're forced to live after they leave Yalta behind. When she departs for Saratov, she knows she'll feel more trapped than ever in her terrible marriage. He tells her that will pass, but when she vows "I'll think of you" as she goes off on the evening train — it chugs away, its black smoke drifting up past the lamps on the station platform, an image worthy of Monet — we know it won't pass for her. He picks up the glove she's dropped on the platform, then leaves it on the fence: what happens in Yalta stays in Yalta. But it doesn't for him, and this exquisite film is about that discovery, and how it turns his life into tragedy. Don't miss it.

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