Anton Chekhov’s The Duel
High Line Pictures
No One Knows About Persian Cats
“My business is to be talented,”Anton Chekhov wrote once to his publisher. He was explaining that his job was not to judge his characters but to vivify them, “to be able to illuminate the characters and speak their language.” A clear instance of this aim is in The Duel, his longest piece of fiction, written in 1891. It arrives now in film form, in English.
The setting of the piece is a town on the Black Sea, much like the Yalta of his story “The Lady with the Dog.” (The film makes a sly reference to that story; at one point a stylish woman carrying a little dog walks past men on a bench, who comment. She never appears again.) Almost all the characters are residents of the town, rather than vacationers, but the atmosphere is similar to that of the other story. This place, for good or ill, is outside bustling Russia: it seems to belong more to the sea than to the continent behind it. In fact, the sea that laps the town is a silent character; its size, its solemnity, its patience are interwoven with the action—something like a scale included on a map so that we can judge size and distance.
Three characters predominate, and two of them immediately engage us, because in them Chekhov is presenting his own Anna Karenina (published fourteen years earlier). He revered Tolstoy, and here he showed that the novel’s situation might have enwrapped other sorts of men and women, differently reactive. Chekhov’s Vronsky, so to speak, is Laevsky, a young minor official of some sort, though we never see him do a stroke of work. An intelligent, moody man, he has absconded with another man’s wife and spends much of his time venting self-disgust, weltschmerz, ironic despair. Chekhov’s Anna is Nadia, an attractive young woman who in this case did not leave any children behind with her husband. She seems more easily adjusted to her new social position than her companion does. One sidewise index of this: while she appears decorous to most, she is well aware of other possible lovers. Yet, differently tempered as they are, Laevsky and Nadia are still in love, though their situation now seems more workaday than daringly romantic.
The third principal is Von Koren, also young, a zoologist who is in this town on a research trip. He is acquainted with Laevsky and Nadia, but he has no particular interest in Nadia, and he despises Laevsky as a facile doomsayer who is helping to corrode and corrupt the best Russian spirit. Someone asks Von Koren why he hates Laevsky, and he replies, “I don’t hate him. I know him too well.” He is the most intricate character in the piece. We can infer that he is basically repelled by Laevsky through some kind of almost animal instincts, that this response was unsatisfactory to a man proud of his intellect, and that he composed a rational indictment in order to justify his dislike of Laevsky to himself.
A letter from a friend tells Laevsky that Nadia’s husband has died: he is thus free to marry her. But as he is now whirling within a deeply disoriented life, he doesn’t give her the news—until he decides what to do about it. He does tell a doctor friend, Samoylenko, who keeps the secret but reproves Laevsky, urging him to marry. Burdened with his guilty secret, Laevsky becomes even more distraught, and at a party he actually bursts into hysterics and has to be taken away. Somewhat recovered the next day, he is offensive to Samoylenko in the presence of Von Koren. The latter immediately takes over the defense of the elderly doctor’s honor and challenges Laevsky to a duel. This extreme challenge is more than credible because we feel that Von Koren has almost been waiting for such a chance.
The duel is held, but the old-time chivalric flummery is handled tartly. All that I’ll mention of the ending, even for a story that was published 120 years ago, is Chekhov’s presumable point. The (then) modern world’s encounter with the older convention-bound world is therapeutic. It is as if this plunge into specifics, the immensity of possible death, altered suppositions and fancies.
The film is visually gorgeous. It was shot in Croatia, and the landscapes are in apposite moods. The interiors—all the daytime scenes, anyway—are striped with bands of window light in relatively dark rooms, which gives the very air in them a feeling of embrace. The cinematographer, Paul Sarossy, also understands the complex rewards of the human countenance. The art direction by Ivica Trpcic and Nenad Pecur fulfills our hunger for splendor in a period film, not least with the ladies’ hats. Angelo Milli’s music supports emotions—sometimes a touch strenuously, but generally well.
The screenplay is by Mary Bing, who (we are told elsewhere) spent ten years as a practicing psychoanalyst. How this helped her with Chekhov’s psyches we cannot speculate. But these people certainly bear his truths. The director, Dover Kosashvili, was born in Soviet Georgia and moved with his family to Israel when he was six. He has made two previous films, unseen by me, which won strings of awards. Notable here, in addition to his shrewd camera movement and attractive framing, is his dependence on glances. A mere glance by one actor to another to end or to turn a scene is sometimes all that he uses.
Fiona Glascott does well with Nadia’s own acting. Nadia herself has to give something of a performance as a woman who truly loves her companion but cannot completely resist others’ advances and needs to maintain the wholeness of her self through it all. Tobias Menzies endows Von Koren with an impressive dignity that conveys his expressed feelings about Laevsky and those unexpressed.
I save Andrew Scott, the Laevsky, for last because he has the most difficult job of fulfilling Chekhov’s intent. Chekhov conceived The Duel with this character as frankly drawn as Scott presents him. This was less risky for Chekhov than for Scott. Our relationship with the man on the printed page is different from our relationship with the man in film. As we read, we envision him as we want to. But in the film Scott, aided by Kosashvili, is there, physically implosive, self-dramatizing and self-centered, demanding admittance to our sympathies. Laevsky, who plunged into a certain mode of life out of passion, is discovering some of its secret complications, is staggering in internal storms as he tries not to be a wretch nor to drown in twisted despair. Yet the actor has to keep us aware that even these depths are not all of the man. Scott, slender, good-looking, with an air that includes Laevsky’s impatience with himself along with his discontent, accomplishes it.
The Iranian films that we have seen in the last few decades have usually been works of meditation, spiritually quiet, almost enviably calm. The abiding wonder with these films, many of which were beautiful, was the contrast between their subjects and the condition of Iran as we read about it almost daily. Now here is a different kind of contrast with the visible Iran—not with meditation or calm but with the seething energy of young dissidents.
No One Knows About Persian Cats is about young people in Tehran whose life—whose politics—is music. They compose and perform, when they can, music that has been forbidden by the state, presumably because it is derived from America. (The film title’s last word is obviously a play on an Americanism.) They call it “indie rock,” and it is mostly soft and sinuous love music. Some of the music later on, more pertinently rebellious, they call “Persian rap.”
This is an instance when the making of a film is highly relevant to its viewers. The director was a Kurdish Iranian, Bahman Ghobadi, whose previous pictures—A Time for Drunken Horsesand Turtles Can Fly, both seen here—were political protests. He says in an interview that the crew did not have permission to make this new film and that they had to shoot every day—only seventeen days in all—at high speed before the police spotted them. (Wryly enough, one scene involves the police, and the producers had to transform an ordinary car into a police car. In this scene the cop takes away a pet dog who is in the front seat of a car, because pets are not allowed outside.) This urgency means that most of the cinematic finish had to be supplied in the editing, mostly with kaleidoscopic montage—of places, people, lights—during the musical numbers.
One of the screenwriters, Roxana Saberi, American-born with an Iranian father, has been a reporter in Tehran since 2003. She was suddenly arrested in January 2009 and held incommunicado. Whether the arrest was connected to this film is not clear: she was writing a book about her Iranian life. After some international protest, including a message from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Saberi was released—in time for the Cannes premiere of this picture.
Most of the story is concerned with a young couple, musicians both, who want to emigrate, who know they cannot do so legally, and who move to acquire false passports and visas. Their story winds around warm scenes with their coeval musicians, with lots of playing and singing. The overall effect is of a busy underground community, relaxed, not wildly angry, but insistent on living their musical lives as they choose and as they can.
The film captures the burning yet lighthearted quality of these young people. Even while they continue with their music—played at secret concerts, of course—they are never sententious or heroic. They simply insist on doing what they want to do. Their sheer existence encourages the rest of us.
Stanley Kauffmann is the film critic for The New Republic.