Danny Huston seemed to appear out of nowhere when he starred in Ivansxtc, Bernard Rose's adaptation of Tolstoy's The Death Of Ivan Ilyich. That extraordinary smile which has been described as shark-like and the rich voice which seems to sound more and more like his father's were suited perfectly to the despicable character of Hollywood agent Ivan Beckman. Much was made of the resistance by some in Hollywood to see a film that depicted the darker side of the industry to be made first of all, and secondly to be distributed once it had been shot. There's no such thing as bad publicity of course and it helped to draw attention to the film which made a virtue of its low budget digital video camera work and used a classical score to excellent effect. Rose intends to make a trilogy of Tolstoy adaptations, of which this is the second part; again starring Danny Huston, again using that handheld digital video look and naturally making excellent use of classical music.
I had wanted to read the novella on which it is based after reading Sofia Tolstoy's account of the book's ban and her attempts to see it lifted, even though the book, with its destruction of the institution of marriage, caused her great embarrassment and pain. I finished reading it just an hour or so before watching the film so it was with some ease that I could recognise some of the lines that Rose had lifted from the book, what parts he had decided to discard and what to keep. In Tolstoy's novella the story is related by its hero, Pozdnyshev, to our narrator as they share a train journey. In adapting it into a film Rose has to rely heavily on voice over to relate the views and opinions of his own hero Edgar. Voice over is one of those things that critics get very sniffy about, and it's certainly a pain when it's lazy or unnecessary, but I'm not sure how else Rose could have got across Edgar's many views and theories about modern life without using it. Perhaps it might have been improved slightly if it had been set up early on that the voice over we were listening to was in fact a conversation between Edgar and someone else. Edgar is a man from a similar social strata to Beckman but with a far more beneficent outlook, helping to run a foundation set up by his family which provides funding for work in the sciences. We see him meet his future wife at a party when she is currently dating someone else and so their own relationship is born of infidelity and possessiveness. The arrival of children is unplanned and the impact of that is for Elisabeth Rohm's wife to give up her career as a classical pianist. So the film clearly follows the book's themes of marriage as enslavement, sex as dangerous, and children as a curse and burden. Over the films length we see the relationship from its very beginning to its bloody end with the slow decay in between.
"We were like two mortal enemies put together in the stocks, bound by a single chain, poisoning each other's lives and refusing to admit it. I was not yet aware that ninety-nine percent of all husbands and wives live in the same way, and that this is inevitable."
This would make a terrible date-movie.
The book is divided roughly into two sections. The first where Pozdnyshev holds forth with his wisdom from experience about marriage, human relations and the truth of the world as he sees it, and the second where he tells the story of his own descent into jealousy, torment and finally murderous rage. The book is weighted just slightly in favour of the former, the film naturally is all about the latter with the voice over providing snippets of Edgar's wisdom. The central event to both is the duet of wife and violinist on Beethoven's Violin sonata no.9. It is Edgar who organises the charity benefit during which the piece will be played, Edgar who chooses Aiden, the violinist, and Edgar who chooses to introduce him to his wife, determined to prove himself the perfect husband by allowing his wife to regain some of that freedom and individuality lost by becoming a wife and mother. Aiden recounts the history of the piece of music, originally dedicated to George Bridgetower, the dedication changed when Bridgetower apparently 'besmirched' the morals of women Beethoven cherished (Aiden's own theory being that Bridgetower had slept with one of Beethoven's ex's) and finally bearing the name of Rodolphe Kreutzer, who considered the piece unplayable and in fact never played it himself. So the music itself is possibly tainted with the stain of immorality but for Edgar it is a very personal experience. A man who doesn't see the point of classical music at all becomes obsessed with this one piece, the music going round and round in his head, as the constant presence of Aiden in their house practising begins to build up the pressure, feeding that green shoot of jealousy until it is all Edgar can think about.
How every detail of that evening is impressed on my mind! I remember his picking up his violin, unlocking the case, removing the cover some woman had embroidered for him, taking out the instrument, and tuning it up. I remember the air of indifference my wife assumed to hide her bashfulness (a bashfulness caused primarily by her playing) and her sitting down with this false expression on her face. Then began the sounding of middle G, the plucking of strings, the setting up if sheets of music. I remember their exchanging looks, their glancing at the assembled guests, their saying something to each other, then beginning. He played the first chord. I remember the grave, strained, fine expression that came to his face, as, listening for his tone, he pressed the strings with cautious fingers. And the piano responded. They had begun.
Rose's editing and use of the music itself is brilliant, helping to create the fever of jealousy, the irrationality of Edgar's thoughts, his animalistic urges, the subtle shift from sexual passion to violent possession to murderous rage.
"Whatever her relations were with that musician, they meant nothing to me, or to her either. The only thing that meant anything was what I have already told you - my bestiality. Everything happened because there was that dreadful gulf between us; so great was the strain of our mutual hatred that the slightest provocation was enough to bring things to a head. Our quarrels had become terrible, and they were the more terrible in that they alternated with periods of intense animal passion."
There is something however that makes the film slightly less impressive than Ivansxtc, something hard to pin down. Some of the improvised dialogue falls very flat (and in one truly bizarre moment Edgar's daughter walks in on her mother practising at the piano and says 'You're not doing it for real' - presumably because the actress isn't doing it for real (the piano parts played by a professional musician) but its inclusion in the final edit suddenly draws attention somewhere it shouldn't be), the film feels a bit long even though it is only 99 mins (perhaps due to some of the improvised meandering), the digital camera work has fewer moments where it can assert itself stylistically and there were even times when I wanted Huston to ramp it up just a notch. Rohm is fantastic as his wife, particularly in an exposed role which demands she spend much of it naked and engaged in vigorous sex with her husband. She exudes a natural beauty and openness on which Edgar can project his lurid fantasies and paranoias. However, given that you can read the book in roughly the same time it takes to watch the film, you don't need me to tell you which would be the better use of your time.