Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street

What does it take to make a good movie? Big stars, the studio-execs over at Miramax would say. Big budget sets. Lots of computer generated special effects. Preferably a mention of Spielberg somewhere in the credits so you can put it on the poster. Maybe a couple of hot nude scenes. Maybe a rocking soundtrack.

Louis Malle’s answer is much simpler. All it takes to make a hypnotic and moving film in Malle’s world is a camera, a good script and a bunch of intelligent and talented actors (not stars, mind you, actors). Nowhere is this more evident than in his brilliant, evocative rendition of Andre Gregory’s stage adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.

Vanya on 42nd Street opens simply enough. It’s a typical day in New York. A group of actors slowly assembles in a broken down off-broadway theatre to take part in a full rehearsal of Andre Gregory’s new play – an adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. The actors mill about, chatting and gossiping, the camera closes in on one pair having a conversation by themselves at a table and suddenly, halfway through their talk, you realise that the play has begun and this quiet easy conversation is two actors playing out their parts.

What follows is two hours of pure Chekhov – except that Malle’s deft, unobtrusive camera work considerably enhances the power of the performance, as he subtly alters perspectives or swoops in for close-ups that show you the characters in all their naked intensity. The film thus combines the unadorned rawness of a theatre performance, with the intimate, focussed feel of good cinema. As Malle moves back and forth between the characters and the overall setting you are constantly thrust in and out of the play – so that sometimes you’re in 19th century Russia, watching the events of the play actually unfold before you and sometimes you’re in a crumbling little theatre on 42nd street, watching a rehearsal of the play. There are no frills here – the actors wear everyday work clothes, the props consist of paper cups and some scattered broken down chairs – there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that comes between you and the actors.

And what actors they are. Wallace Shawn plays the disappointed, half-tragic, half-comic Vanya to perfection, and Larry Pine makes both the intensity and the humour of Dr. Astrov come alive for me as it never did in the play. George Gaynes puts on a good comic turn as the Professor, brilliantly highlighting the bitter irony of that character’s presence with a style all his own, but one never quite feels the empathy with the good scholar that one did in the play. Gayne’s professor is an entirely unsympathetic character – a bumbling self-centred demagogue – not the failed intellectual clinging desperately to life that I always saw in my reading of the play.

Julianne Moore (on the verge of breaking into the major league when this movie was made) plays Yelena and is almost shockingly good. I’ve never cared for Moore much – I think she has an intense and fragile beauty (that works much better in period settings than in modern ones; just compare her in An Ideal Husband to her in, say, The Lost World ) – but with the possible exception of The Hours (where she does a fairly competent job) I’ve never thought much of her acting. So it was a pleasant surprise to see how good she was as Yelena – the combination of that dazzling classical beauty and some superb if slightly overstated acting brilliantly bringing out Yelena’s fragile, temperamental nature, her instability, her half unconscious charm. Watching Moore in the movie, you experience first hand the sense of ambiguity that the characters in the play feel towards her – a gnawing fascination that contrasts with a sense of outrage at her uselessness, at the priviliges she seems to enjoy.

Finally, there’s Brooke Smith who plays Sonja. Smith’s performance starts disappointingly – her distinctly american accent jars a bit (especially when she says ‘Poppa’) and she seems too diffident, too awkward an actress. It’s only as the play progresses that you begin to suspect that this awkwardness, this sense of discomfort, is really just a disguise, and waiting behind it is an actress just waiting to burst out into a performance unmatched, even among so stellar a cast, for its quiet vulnerability.

The real star of Vanya on 42nd Street, though, is undoubtedly Chekhov. In the final analysis, what both the cast and Malle bring to the performance is precisely their ability to let this man shine through in all his bitter-sweet brilliance. Chekhov’s great gift is for unflinching gentleness, a sense of almost tragic compassion, the ability to raise all the glory and pettiness of human existence to a higher, more luminous level, without blurring the slightest detail of its sad reality. There are no happy endings in Chekhov, there is often not even the hope of one, and yet his writing leaves you with a sense of calm understanding that you cannot find anywhere else.

The greatest tribute I can pay Vanya on 42nd Street is that it does justice to Chekhov’s dramatic vision, both in letter* and in spirit. And you can’t do any better than that.

* The changes to the script are minimal – I think a few lines may have been edited out, but overall (based on what I remember of the play at least) the performance itself is entirely loyal to the play; with only the dialogue of the actors outside the performance being added.