Louis Malle – Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)

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A group of actors arrive in a rundown theater in the heart of New York City. For the next couple of hours, they are going to rehearse Anton Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya.

The actors gather around a small table placed in the middle of the stage and begin acting.

Uncle Vanya has spent the majority of his life working for Serybryakov, the snobbish husband of his late sister. For the modest amount of 500 rubles per year, he has carefully managed Serybryakov’s estate, which the old man is now planning to sell.

Uncle Vanya is frustrated – but not only because Serybryakov wants to sell the estate. The old man has returned home with his beautiful wife, Yelena (Julianne Moore), whom Uncle Vanya loves. She knows about his feelings but has chosen to ignore them because she understands that having a relationship with another man after years of marriage simply isn’t right. But Uncle Vanya has incorrectly assumed that Yelena is ignoring him because he is poor.

Uncle Vanya’s sister, Sonya, is also frustrated because she is madly in love with a man whom it appears she cannot have. The man is the charming and eloquent Dr. Astrov, who lives nearby and regularly stops by for a glass of vodka. For years Sonya has tried to reveal her feelings to him, but he has remained cold.

Maman, Uncle Vanya and Sonya’s elderly mother, knows exactly how her children feel, but has chosen to stay out of their lives.

Tensions rise after Serybryakov officially announces in front of everyone in the estate that he is going to sell it. Outraged, Uncle Vanya immediately confronts him. Then, he brings out his old revolver. Yelena and Sonya, however, finally warm up to each other. Later on, Yelena even offers to help Sonya with Dr. Astrov, who has arrived in the estate shortly before Serybryakov’s announcement and already had a few glasses of vodka. But when she approaches him, he asks for a permission to kiss her.

Based on a script by the legendary stage director Andre Gregory and adapted into English by David Mamet, Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street is a fascinating experiment that merges theater and film. It was completed in 1994, approximately five years after Gregory invited the film’s brilliant cast to the not so friendly and largely abandoned Victory Theater on 42nd Street in New York City, where the actors started rehearsing Chekhov’s play.

The film, like the play, is brilliant. The key conflicts in it are largely unchanged, but the Russian fatalism is replaced with contemporary cosmopolitan views which most Western viewers will find far easier to understand and appreciate. A lot of the dry sarcasm from the play is also replaced with subtle dark humor.

What makes this film so fascinating to behold, however, is the outstanding cast. There is a very real connection between the actors that transcends far beyond what is typically regarded as acting. The conflicts they are involved with are not staged, they are happening. The emotions are real, the reactions are authentic.

Vanya on 42nd Street was director Malle’s last film. In 1995, a year after the film was completed, he died from lymphoma in his home in Beverly Hills, California. (~blu-ray.com)

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