Anton Chekhov's The Duel
Directed by Dover Koshashvili
One of the participants in Anton Chekhov's The Duel's climactic face-off describes such a challenge and its surrounding fuss—the necessary choosing of seconds, the scouting of a suitably dew-dappled location, the careful pacing off of distances—as an "out-of-date formality." And yet Laevsky (Andrew Scott), a sneering dilettante, and von Koren (Tobias Menzies), a sanctimonious zoologist, make good on the challenge. Of course, in having these two point pistols at each other, Chekhov in his 1891 novella also counterpoints the man of science's Nietzschian outlook with the civil servant's dissolute "intellectualism."
Late Marriage director Dover Koshashvili and screenwriter Mary Bing more or less edit out von Koren's sinister worldview and play up Laevsky's nervous skulking, stripping him of all charm. Their approximation of the author's droll-sympathetic tone is impressive, and everything in the film down to its off-putting accent scheme says "respectable adaptation"—the leads are British but a few privileged peripheral characters have Russian accents—but the upsetting of the balance between the duelists' opposing points of view leaves the film feeling strangely devoid of substance.
In Chekhov's novella, Laevsky likens himself to Turgenev's superfluous man, but this version begins with the clerk in a mid-afternoon slumber and later being gossiped about for wearing slippers all day, evoking Oblomov, Ivan Goncharov's terminally lazy superfluous-man variant. But it soon becomes apparent that Laevsky has not retired from all activity. He plays cards, drinks a prodigious amount, and spews venom at his conniving mistress, Nadia (Fiona Glascott), whom he refuses to marry despite the convenient death of her husband from "softening of the brain." It's his desire to leave her, and his shameless borrowing of the hapless Samoynko's (Niall Buggy) money to do so, that brings his rivalry with von Koren to a head.
There's a small but rich tradition of films depicting the ridiculous inevitability of such death-courting proofs of principle, with the absurd face-offs of Barry Lyndon and The Duellists perhaps the most brutally funny of them. The Duel has a similarly sardonic gloss on human nature, disguised as a sardonic take on the era in which it's set, but there is nothing particularly cinematic about it. Despite able work by longtime Atom Egoyan cinematographer Paul Sarossy, the film's Black Sea-scapes feel flat, like scenery, always only incidental to the story's progress. The Duel apparently marks Chekhov's centenary-and-a-half, but it just seems superfluous.
Opens April 28 at Film Forum