Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

FILM, Film Society
img_vanyaon42ndstreetPreviously at the Wellington Film Society: Louis Malle’s swansong through the world of Chekhov.

Anton Chekhov is, as oft-stated, the master of subtext. There’s a freshness to his century-old work as a result, with contemporary audiences having to fill in the gaps with their own views on motivation and desire. So, the thought of seeing actors walking off the street, dressed in casual clothing, and performing one of Chekhov’s plays (specifically Uncle Vanya) as if on the fly, has a certain modern sensibility to it. Louis Malle closes the book on a substantial ouevre with a filmed performance of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (as adapted by David Mamet), played in a decrepit New York theatre by actors who had been working on the material over the course of three years. Incidentally, this was the last film directed by Malle before his death in 1995, ending one of the more eclectic and hard to pin down careers in world cinema. And interestingly enough, Malle bids adieu with a film about wasted opportunities and the failure to grasp one’s potential.

Vanya on 42nd Street moves from the arrival of the actors, the director of the play (André Gregory), and the audience to the theatre, through to the performance of the play itself. By the end, the audience has disappeared, the artifice of the performance has vanished, and we feel like we’re living inside Chekhov’s characters. The acting, as you’d expect from an ensemble who had been performing these roles for three years, is magnificent, especially once the camera decides to dispense with the set and move onto the faces. Julianne Moore as the tragic yet culpable Yelena in particular stands out.

The film also captures some of the debates around Chekhov’s work: whether his short stories and plays were ‘realist’ or not, and whether his focus on characters came at the expense of narrative. Malle is playful with these various debates while ostensibly filming a performed play. He moves from straight realism—the opening feels like an exercise in New York observation à la Shirley Clarke—into a more filmic sense of movement and space as the play progresses, despite the confines of the set. Malle even interrupts the ‘theatre’ aspect of the script to include a voiceover monologue, which any real-life audience would not have heard. The set itself—an old New York theatre which lets in street sounds and traffic noise, acting as a modern-day soundtrack to the fin de siècle Russia—is crumbling, a neat parallel to the decay and lost opportunities of the play. It then disappears, suggesting an almost futile attempt to preserve (jarring with the play’s turning point when the Serebryakov’s intent to sell the land causes the final dislocation with Vanya). Conversely, the “everybody has their reasons” aspect of Chekhov’s characterisation is heightened by this shift from artifice to a more naturalistic setting. But it’s the subtext—what we see missing in terms of time, space, and characterisation in both the play and in Malle’s depiction—that’s most effective. Furthermore, it’s what Malle decides to amend (or even rectify) as the film goes on that makes this old play seem as fresh as the day it was written.

Film Societies in fourteen centres run an annual programme of weekly/monthly film screenings. Membership entitles the holder free admission to screenings for a 12-month period. Full details at, or for information about a film society closest to you, visit the NZ Federation of Film Societies.