For many viewers of this cinematic adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s 1899 short story, the plot is familiar before the film begins. The middle-aged Dmitrii Gurov (Aleksei Batalov) meets the young Anna Sergeevna (Iia Savvina) while vacationing in Yalta. Their friendship quickly transitions into a romantic affair. Gurov’s unconcerned snacking on watermelon following their first intimate encounter suggests his familiarity with extra-marital affairs; while Anna’s profound moral distress reveals that she considers this to be her fall from innocence. Their departures from Yalta to their respective homes would seem to mark the end of their vacation tryst, but much to his own surprise, while home in Moscow, the cynical Gurov is tormented by the vapidity of his bourgeois life and, even more, by his longing for Anna. When he arrives unannounced in Anna’s hometown, she, too, acknowledges her anguish, but sends him away for fear of being caught. The two resolve to meet secretly, but regularly, in Moscow, and there they begin to develop a love so profound that ‘it seemed to them that Fate itself had meant them for one another, and they could not understand why he had a wife and she a husband’. 1
In the opening episode of Lady with a Lapdog, director Iosif Kheifits captures the boredom endemic to Yalta, a seaside resort town located on the Black Sea. The water sonorously laps the rocky shore and sluggishly rocks a floating empty wine bottle; goats lazily graze in the low tide; and the few men populating the local café sit, nearly asleep, propping up their heads, but allowing their eyelids to droop. The men’s conversation is somewhat enlivened when one of them announces the arrival of a young pretty woman vacationing alone. With a shrug of the shoulders that seems to say, ‘alas, it’s too bad’, one gentleman acknowledges that he is accompanied on this trip by his spouse. However, Dmitrii Gurov, who sits at the neighbouring table, is in Yalta without wife or children. He, they suggest, might make the young woman’s acquaintance. Without any particular response, Gurov drinks his cordial and directs his gaze out of the café onto the young woman walking her small white dog along the promenade. With every sip he takes, his hand and the wedding band on it enter the frame. The next day Gurov again sits in the café and the as-of-yet unknown woman enters. The camera focuses first on her wedding band, then on his. Following Chekhov’s much-cited metaphor of the inevitability of a shot should a loaded gun be included in a play’s first act, the visual linking of the two main characters via their wedding rings prepares us for a tale of infidelity.
If nineteenth-century narratives of adultery tend toward the dramatic with their forays into ecstatic highs, turbulent psychologies, social damnation and heroines’ suicides (e.g. Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), Emile Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (1867), and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (1877)), then this introductory episode to Kheifits’s adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s ‘Lady with a Lapdog’ (1899) marked by lackadaisical boredom presents a more reserved tenor, one devoid of public judgment and the scandals that would accompany it. Take note at how, despite being surrounded by other members of vacationing society, Anna and Gurov’s introduction to one another occurs via a series of shot/countershots that frame each in the screen independently. Kheifits thus cinematically separates his protagonists from the world around them and allows their subsequent courtship to take place in isolation from potentially meddling society folk. Even the camera gives them privacy: after they first embrace and run off toward Anna’s room, the camera, rather than pan along them, focuses on the dog. Furthermore, not only does the film employ specific cinematic shots to avoid showing the Yalta community judging these vacationers’ tryst, but this visual theme is paired with narrative plot points: Anna’s husband, who suffers from an eye ailment, summons her home, thus suggesting that he, too, is metaphorically blind to her infidelity. Kheifits couples this theme of blindness with the theme of vision to underscore the private nature of their relationship. For example, in opposition to Anna’s husband’s ailing eyes, Gurov sees Anna. The film opens with him looking at her walk along the Yalta promenade. After returning home to Moscow, he plays the piano while gazing at a lit candelabra and the memory of Anna’s face illuminated by candlelight from the night of their first romantic encounter enters into his mind’s eye. And, again, when he arrives unannounced in her hometown and attends the local theatre, certain to find her there, he spies her from a distance through his opera binoculars. Interestingly, Anna’s husband, who accompanies her at the theatre, sees neither Anna nor Gurov, but directs his gaze at yet some other woman. The significance here is not that Gurov has eyes only for Anna, to use a cliché, but that their affair is entirely their own; it is private, personal, and removed from social judgment.
By 1958, when Kheifits was presented with the opportunity to shoot Lady with a Lapdog to commemorate the centennial of Chekhov’s birth, Soviet cinema had shifted away from the demands of Stalinist culture towards a focus on the individual and on private life. Films from this period, known as the Thaw (approximately 1956–1964), tend to feature everyday people (as opposed to larger-thanlife heroes), allow for realistic depictions of personal (as opposed to public) struggles, and replace the logocentricity of Stalinist cinema with evocative visual lyricism.2 Each of these features is present in Kheifits’s film and worth considering in further detail. First, neither Anna nor Gurov is constructed as an exceptional character, quite the opposite: she articulates the standard clichés of a fallen woman, and Gurov remains impervious to her barrage of banalities, having heard them all many times before. He is a usual bourgeois Muscovite, a point accentuated visually in the episode of Gurov’s dinner with a friend, whom Gurov so closely resembles as to make them nearly indistinguishable. The friend is simply an older, more cynical version of Gurov. Second, while characterised as typical, Gurov’s and Anna’s relatable personal struggles – each married too soon and to the wrong person – make them sympathetic. This presentation of innocent infidelity also fits into Soviet cinema’s cultural metamorphosis. Questions of loyalty were key to Soviet culture during the war and late Stalinism. For example, as Peter Rollberg points out, Aleksandr Stolper’s Stalinist-era film Wait for Me (Zhdi menia, 1943) ‘juxtapose[es] the “positive” Liza who maintains an unshakeable faith in her beloved’s survival to the “negative” Sonia who gives up on her husband and enjoys the benefits of an extramarital affair’. 3 Not only did such oppositions function to teach moral behaviour, but such expressions of personal loyalty (or disloyalty) also stood for national loyalty insofar as cultural texts constructed the individual to be a representative of the state. Nothing in Kheifits’s film is similarly tendentious; the viewer is neither meant to act like nor avoid acting like Anna and Gurov. Instead, Lady with a Lapdog implicitly rejects Stalinist mandates to showcase exemplars of right and wrong. Rather than villains, Gurov and Anna become victims of circumstance: incapable of quelling their strongest, most real feelings – their love for one another – each is forced to live a divided life. Significantly, it is their public lives, in particular their marriages, that are lies; only in their private, secret life together are they able to express their truest emotional selves.
And third, while Kheifits remains respectfully loyal to the original plot, as Soviet adaptations of literary classics tend to do, Lady with a Lapdog is much more than a faithful cinematic retelling. Just as Kheifits succeeds in employing Chekhov’s late nineteenth-century story to capture the cinematic trends of his own contemporary moment, he also masterfully adapts the brevity of Chekhov’s literary style into cinematic language. For example, in the introductory episode described above, Kheifits, in minimal time and with remarkably few shots, renders such key themes as the connection between nature and man, bourgeois ennui, and the social acceptance of men’s adulterous affairs as a common diversion. Chekhov’s story’s notable lack of dialogue lends itself to a film built on visual subtleties. Setting, dress, coiffures, and even posture convey class affiliation more strikingly than words. The unobtrusive and restrained camera avoids rapid-fire montage and extreme high and low angles, preferring even, static medium and close-up shots that help convey objectivity. And, with the exception of the couple’s reunion at the provincial theatre, which is uncharacteristically explosive, the reserved, careful pacing of the film keeps this great love story from reaching frenzied ecstasy.
Cinematically, Kheifits conveys the theme of private individualism and melancholic tone, in part, by placing the film’s protagonists in natural landscapes as opposed to social settings. In an article published in the Russian film journal The Art of Cinema (Iskusstvo kino), Kheifits recalls Chekhov’s own thoughts on man and nature and writes that ‘between man and his environment there ought to be an inner harmony’. Thus, Kheifits goes on to argue, it is not any moral delinquency, but the unseasonably hot wind that would seem to blow in the sense of agitation that leads Anna into Gurov’s embrace. Similarly, during their visit to Oreanda, Chekhov describes the monotonously breaking of the waves as supplying a constancy and ‘complete indifference to the life and death of each of us’. 4 Kheifits visually repeats Chekhov’s refusal to aggrandise the significance of their union by shooting the couple in plain, static medium shots and, to the contrary, the dramatic seaside mountain landscape and sunrise with emotional chiaroscuro. Their affair has minimal effect on the world around them; rather it is shown to be a passionate flame that exists only between the two of them.
Finally, Kheifits’s choice of actors also helps to create the film’s sympathetic portrayal of infidelity. By 1960 Batalov, who plays Gurov, was already well known to Soviet film going audiences. He had starred as the martyred revolutionary Pavel Vlasov in Mark Donskoi’s adaptation of Maksim Gorky’s Mother (Mat´, 1955). And in 1957 he played the young romantic, but tragic hero in Mikhail Kalatovoz’s masterpiece The Cranes are Flying (Letiat zhuravli). Thus, while not precisely typecast, Soviet audiences had grown accustomed to watching him as a victim, rather than a villain. Savvina, to the contrary, debuted in Lady with a Lapdog. Her youth and innocence immediately endeared her to audiences; she went on to have an eminently successful acting career in both film and theatre.
1. Anton Chekhov, ‘Lady with the Pet Dog’, in Avrahm Yarmolinsky (ed.), The Portable Chekhov, New York, NY, Penguin, 1975, pp. 432–33.
2. See Josephine Woll, Real Images: Soviet Cinema and the Thaw, London, I. B. Tauris, 2000.
3. Peter Rollberg, ‘Wait for Me’ in Birgit Beumers (ed.), Directory of World Cinema: Russia, Bristol, Intellect Ltd, 2011. 4. Chekhov, p. 419.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: USSR. Production Company: Lenfil’m. Director: Iosif Kheifits. Screenwriters: Iosif Kheifits and Dmitrii Meskhiev. Cinematographers: Andrei Moskvin and Dmitrii Meskhiev. Music: Nadezhda Simonian. Editor: Elena Bazhenova. Cast: Aleksei Batalov (Dmitrii Gurov), Iia Savvina (Anna Sergeevna), Nina Alisova (Gurov’s wife).]
J. D. Clayton and Yana Meerzon (eds), Adapting Chekhov: The Text and its Mutations, New York, Routledge, 2013.
Julian Graffy. ‘Literature and Film’, in Evgeny Dobrenko and Marina Balina (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Twentieth-Century Russian Literature, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 235–50.
Stephen Hill ‘Soviet Film Today’, Film Quarterly, Vol. 20, No. 4, 1967, pp. 33–52.
Bill Valentine, ‘Nature in Chekhov’s Fiction’, Russian Review, Vol. 33, No. 2, 1974, pp. 153–66.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.