Tag Archives: writer’s life

Dostoevsky (2010)

“I wanted to write about the world of moral chaos.”

Dostoevsky is a 2010 8 episode mini-series made for Russian television from director Vladimir Khotinenko, and if you’re into Russian film, Russian history or Dostoevsky, then this marvellous DVD is well worth the purchase. The film doesn’t begin with the start of Dostoevsky’s life, but rather it begins as he’s about to be executed for his involvement with the Petrashevsky Circle. This incident was a pivotal event in Dostoevsky’s life–not only did it mark the beginning of his harsh exile in Siberia, but it also marked a turn in his moral outlook which consequently impacted his literary work. Veteran actor Yevgeny Mironov plays Dostoevsky, and I can’t think of another Russian actor who could tackle this fiercely nuanced role so effectively. Interestingly Mironov also played the title role in the 2003 television series version of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.

Each of the episodes begins with Dostoevsky sitting for the famous portrait painted by Petrov, and then from this point, the action segues usually from memory. Here’s some highlights from each episode:

1) Dostoevsky’s mock execution (not quite accurately portrayed) and his exile &  imprisonment in Omsk, Siberia

2) Dostoevsky as a private and later a lieutenant in the Russian Army stationed in Semipalatinsk, Siberia and his love affair with Maria Dmitrievna Isayeva (played by the exquisite Chulpan Khamatova), the consumptive and miserably unhappy wife of an unemployed bureaucrat.

3) Dostoevsky in St Petersburg 1959: his troubled marriage to Maria, his continuing struggles with his literary career, his love for an actress.

4) Continuing disintegration of marriage to Maria , his passionate affair with Apollinaria Suslov (Polyina), closure of the literary magazine he ran with his brother Mikhail, 1863 trip to Wiesbaden, gambling at casino, public reading of Insulted and humiliated.

5) Dostoevsky, driven almost insane by his passion for Polyina,  follows her to Paris. Goes to Baden- Baden–the death of Dostoevsky’s brother, Mikhail–the death of Maria.

6) Heavily burdened by debt, Dostoevsky makes a bet with publisher that he’ll write a novel in one month. This novel is appropriately called The Gambler, and when Dostoevsky makes the bet to complete the novel in a month, he’s yet to write a line of it. Under immense pressure to meet the deadline (if he loses the publisher has all rights to anything  Dostoevsky produces for the next nine years), he seems destined to fail. With this all or nothing scenario, Dostoevsky employs the quiet, self-possessed Anna (Alla Yuganova) as a stenographer.

7) Marriage to Anna. Baden-Baden 1867. Meets and argues with Turgenev. Anna gives birth to first child

8) Dostoevsky’s family life and continued literary success.

The series depicts Dostoevsky as a complex man, an introvert who falls in love easily, and his love affairs seem to satisfy some facet of his personality. His compassion for Maria, for example, long  outlived any emotional attachment, his second marriage gave him some emotional stability, and his affairs drove him to the brink of insanity. Several scenes depict Dostoevsky in society, and these scenes serve to highlight Dostoevsky’s complexities through his conversations with other intellectuals who repeatedly attempt to pigeon-hole his intricate beliefs & his deep-rooted compassion.

The film doesn’t delve into the production of Dostoevsky’s great novels, and that’s a bit disappointing, and instead the plot focuses on Dostoevsky seen through the prism of his relationships, and his struggles with poverty (at one point for example, he and Anna have to pawn clothes in order to send a finished manuscript of The Idiot back to Russia), and there are also a few allusions to some of the deeper references to his life.  We see Anna doggedly working on a stamp collection, and while there’s no background to that hobby, it’s a reference to the discussion Dostoevsky once had with Anna about women. He claimed that women would approach stamp collecting with the thrill of buying a new expensive album, but that the excitement of stamp collecting would wear off shortly after making the expensive purchase. Anna, who later managed Dostoevsky’s life and career with intelligent, quiet and protective passion, bought a cheap album and proceeded to collect stamps for the rest of her life.  The film also hints of the manner in which she dealt with Dostoevsky’s ever-grasping stepson, Pavel. Watching the film and appreciating the monumental struggles this brilliant author suffered serves to create wonder–not only that a man of this intellectual calibre suffered for the want of a few roubles, but that he never gave up the quest to write the novels he left for the world. 

For this viewer, the film has some unforgettable scenes: Dostoevsky chuckling outside of the casino at Baden-Baden. His pockets are packed are full of his winnings and he chuckles like a child constantly patting his pockets. At another point, he’s trying to finish The Gambler within a month and he’s down to the wire and feeling ill. Anna settles him on the couch and he mutters something about being spoiled. She replies that a man cannot be spoiled by love, and we see the wheels churning in Dostoevsky’s mind as he absorbs that comment. The camera is behind Dostoevsky, so we catch a side view, and somehow the camera captures the thought process in Dostoevsky’s brain–simply by focusing on a close up of an eye and an eyebrow–as he reevaluates Anna.  Another incredible scene takes place between a smoothly depicted Turgenev and an impassioned Dostoevsky (involving the spiteful rumours from the former that the latter molested a child). There’s also a great moment between Dostoevsky and his stepson Pavel as he whines about being poor: “Pasha, this is stupid to be ashamed of poverty, You should be ashamed of stupidity.” Finally one of the film’s most explosive scenes in which Mironov is Dostoevsky takes place during a public reading of Pushkin’s The Prophet. Absolutely incredible.

There were a couple of points in the film that were not explained. At one point, for example, Anna, Dostoevsky’s new stenographer and future wife shows up to work one day and Dostoevsky’s eye is damaged. Has he been beaten up or was this a result of an injury sustained during a seizure? We don’t know. The film has a few subtitle problems but nothing you can’t work out for yourself.

There are two recurring motifs throughout the film: one depicts Dostoevsky throwing a dice during a childhood game, and this motif is placed to introduce the seismic shifts in Dostoevsky’s life–often incidents that take place on a whim or by chance, and the second motif is the continual placement of the roulette wheel juxtaposed with Dostoevsky’s hard labour in Siberia and his task to turn a giant wheel with bloodied hands. As the roulette wheel and the giant wheel to which Dostoevsky was chained, day after day, are structured similarly, the motif underscores Dostoevsky’s addiction to gambling which enslaved him as surely as his sentence to Siberia.  Ultimately the film, loaded with splendid performances, will give you insights into Dostoevsky’s life and work, and that’s no small achievement. This really is a marvellous bio-pic. Grab it if you find it.

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Balzac: A Life of Passion (1999)


“Spare me your base reflections.”

The French made-for-television film Balzac: A Life of Passion chooses to concentrate on the two great passions in Balzac’s troubled life: writing and women. This is not a wonderful film, but if you are a Balzac fan (me), a fan of French costume dramas, or a fan of Depardieu and Fanny Ardant (me again), then you’ll want to catch this 180-minute drama.

balzac2Framing the film is a scene in which the young Balzac rushes to his sour, cold and disapproving mother, Charlotte-Laure (Jeanne Moreau) and she rejects his attempts for affection. Apparently Balzac is near the bottom of his class–hence no affection and certainly no parental approval. And this scene sets the tone for the rest of the film’s theme: Balzac’s lifelong quest for love, affection and approval.

The film explores the significant relationships with the women in Balzac’s life: his unpleasant mother, of course, as well as the much older, tragic Madame de Berny (Virna Lisi), the capricious Laure d’ Abrantes (Katja Riemann), and the final great love of his life Eva Hanska (played by the spectacular Fanny Ardant). Over all of his love affairs, Balzac’s mother reigns with her sour disapproval and her conviction that she’s destined for hell thanks to her son’s blasphemous books.

Balzac’s supreme masterpieces take a back seat to the love affairs in this tale. There are, however, some great moments, for example when Balzac explains to Laure d’Abrantes that he fears thousands of “blank pages.” Moments such as these reveal a glimpse at a man haunted by the fear he would die before finishing La Comedie Humaine. And Balzac was a workaholic–a man chasing his own demons while trying to avoid debts and debtors’ prison. To Balzac : “The Imagination is an impatient mistress,” and the film tries to examine Balzac’s conflict between love and art, but largely fails and instead the idea seems to be that Balzac wore himself out chasing women while juggling his writing career.

In spite of its stellar cast, the film, from director Josee Dayan fails largely thanks to the portrayal of Balzac. He just isn’t a very interesting character here. Apart from a few scenes that reveal a thinking, brilliant mind, for the most part Balzac comes off at times as eccentric and brutish, at others as a bit of a nutter. Take the scene for example when he hunts for the Countess Hanska at the masked ball. He careens through the ballroom like a buffoon dressed up in someone’s old curtains. Ardant is, frankly, the best thing in the film: luminous and complex, she steals the film even as she spins circles around the seemingly slow-witted Balzac.

There are a few references to Balzac’s novels: The Chouans, Modest Mignon, Cousin Bette, Colonel Chabert, but overall if you want to discover the genius behind La Comedie Humaine, well you won’t find that genius here. Coincidentally, the film adaptation of Colonel Chabert also stars Depardieu but that film makes my top ten list of all time. That said, Balzac’s death scene is painfully accurate. I was disappointed in the film, but still glad I saw it, and now I’m going over to my bookshelf to pick out a Balzac novel to reread.


Filed under Fanny Ardant, France, Gerard Depardieu, Period Piece

Children of the Century (1999)

“I want a reminder of last night’s sins.”

The passionate love affair between French writer George Sand (Juliette Binoche) and poet/dramatist Alfred de Musset (Benoit Magimel) epitomized the Romantic Period and scandalized 19th century society. Children of the Century is the story of Sand’s 2 year long affair with de Musset.

Baroness Aurore Dudevant sheds the suffocation of married life on her husband’s estate to further her writing career. Donning male apparel, she heads for Paris and takes the name George Sand. Speaking at a literary salon, George reads an excerpt of her work attacking the lack of male sensitivity towards female pleasure. Most of the listeners are scandalized, but young rake Alfred de Musset is entranced. De Musset, who’s mainly into debauchery, maintains a lively friendship with Sand, but inevitably the two become lovers.

At first, their love affair makes perfect sense–he’s a rake entranced by novelty, and she’s attracted by his passionate nature. While his friends speculate about the relationship, and his family disapproves, Sand and Musset depart for a trip to Italy.

Once in Italy, de Musset’s behaviour towards Sand is appalling. He parties with prostitutes, stays out all night long, and returns looking decidedly haggard. De Musset’s relationship with Sand is strained, but things become even uglier when they both become ill, and Sand employs a handsome, young Italian physician (Stefano Dionisi).

Just how much you enjoy Children of the Century may depend on how much you enjoy Romanticism–Sand’s Grand Passion with de Musset is difficult to understand unless you accept Romanticism–its absence of restraint, belief in self-expression, unbounded, irrational emotion, and the notion that love is essentially difficult, tumultuous, and above all–painful. Sand–a proto feminist takes immense abuse and humiliation from de Musset who rapidly becomes an enfant terrible once his feet land on Italian soil.

The sets and the costumes are spectacular, and the acting superb, but watching over 2 hours of violent break-ups followed by remorse for bad behaviour, momentary penance, culminating in desperate groping is exhausting and can become a bit grating on the nerves. One must, however, realize that these two great literary figures of the Romantic Era explored their liaison to the fullest, and that included high drama, jealous rages, opium binges, and even attempted murder–Children of the Century is worth catching for anyone interested in the period. In French with English subtitles.

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Providence (1977)

“I passed from childhood more or less to wifehood without the tiresome intervention of a development of personality in between”

I rather like the films of Alain Resnais, and the fact that Dirk Bogarde has a leading role fueled my curiosity even further, so I sought out a copy of Providence.

A dying author Clive Langham (John Gielgud) spends a pain-wracked night attempting to work through the plot of what will inevitably be his last novel. Part of the film shows Clive as he struggles to juggle the plot with the constant distraction of pain, and part of the film follows the characters in Clive’s fictional plot. Clive’s plot concerns an uptight lawyer, Claude (Dirk Bogarde) and his unhappy, bitter marriage to Sonia (Ellen Burstyn). When the film begins, Clive imagines a fictional scene in which Claude defends Kevin (David Warner) a man accused of murder.

While the film is interesting in its clever stream of consciousness exploration of the creative process, I also found it rather frustrating to watch. Clive is under the influence of a considerable amount of alcohol and pain medication, so his nights are restless, and his creative juices are somewhat erratic. For example, Clive constantly imagines scenes (which we see played out) and then corrects them. And of course, while this no doubt happens in real life as any author proceeds with a book, in the case of Providence, Clive’s mind wanders. Two imagined characters, for example, are in a hotel room exchanging an intense dialog, when a third character, a footballer, jogs in. The author’s omnipotent voice then interrupts to question the presence of the third character, and then the scene promptly replays without the footballer. In other instances, two characters are sitting at a table contemplating the scene of a city, but then the scenery changes to a beach. Some of the elements in the fictional plot are surreal–the gunfire and shady military actions, and the wolfman, for example. With these constant distractions, I found it difficult to become very involved in the plot.

The best parts of the film are, of course, those bitter, barbed marital exchanges that take place between Claude and his wife. The imagined Claude is an emotionless man who keeps a dying mistress (Elaine Stritch), and the nasty exchanges that take place between Claude and his wife Sonia are marvelous.

The film explores the process of creativity with an emphasis on the fact that authors frequently dig deeply into their personal experiences for material. In Providence, we see that real life intrudes into the imagination in many ways. In Claude’s case, his personal life is transmuted into fiction, and while certain key factors are present (his wife’s terminal cancer, for example), other characters assume entirely different personalities. This film, by the way, is entirely in English.

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