Friday, May 12, 2017

Michael Cacoyannis | The Cherry Orchard

While ordering up a copy of Jonathan Demme’s film, Vanya of 42nd Street on Netflix, I was also referred to Michael Cacoyannis’ 1999 filming of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, a play, inexplicably, I had never seen. It was time, I thought to myself, to fill in this missing link in my never-ending education. Cacoyannis’ film, unlike the André Gregory-Wallace Shawn production, also appeared to (and actually did) present a more traditional version than had Vanya, about which I had criticisms for that very fact. 
      During this same period in 2017, I was correcting and indexing the pages for My Year 2011, and, after seeing the second film and doing some research, discovered what I had forgotten, that the director of this film and his more famous work, Zorba the Greek, the Greek Cypriot artist had died that same year, The Cherry Orchard representing his last film. The Cherry Orchard, moreover, was very much about a house in which no one was any longer at home, and soon would be destroyed, with no other place for its former denizens to go. It seemed perfect, accordingly, to also include it in my 2011 volume of my cultural memoirs, and, after cutting out another, less interesting piece, I included it therein.

a place not really theirs

Michael Cacoyannis (script, based on the play by Anton Chekhov, and director) The Cherry Orchard / 1999

Unlike the stage version of The Cherry Orchard, Michael Cacoyannis’ 1999 film version of the great Chekhov play, begins in France, with Anya (Tushka Bergen), along with their eccentric governess, Charlotte Ivanovna (the wonderfully comic Frances de la Tour) have traveled to bring her mother, the beautiful Ranyevskaya (Charlotte Rampling), home. In the small, grungy apartment in which they find her, after having run away from her Russian home because of the drowning death of her son, and having taken up with an unnamed lover, and recently attempting suicide.

By beginning the work far away from their provincial Russian home, Cacoyannis establishes from the very outset of this tragi-comedy that at least the house’s owner has already abandoned it. And, although the story will take a while unwind in describing the entire series of events, it is clear from her own condition of near- poverty (having already had to sell her villa), that despite her returning to the nest, so to speak, she, her brother Gayev (Alan Bates), and the entire family have already lost their estate.
     One can almost sit back, accordingly, for the rest of the film and watch the often comic and sad machinations of the family and its servants that demonstrate in their downfall. 
     Bates plays Gayev as a kind of madman, addicted to billiards the way, it is hinted, that Ranyevskaya is to—is it snuff or cocaine? Or, perhaps the way Ivanovna’s dog is addicted to nuts. 
      Yet the true marvel of this film is that the Ranyevskaya is not played, as she often is, as a kind of frail early version of O’Neill’s Mary Tyrone, a woman with no head for money or facts, but rather a woman who intentionally resists what she knows is the truth: the fact that, as Lopahin (Owen Teale) reminds her again and again, she must sell the lovely cherry orchard to create expensive subplots for the growing rich in order to pay off the estate’s growing debts.  Rampling portrays Ranyevskaya, rather, as a woman who will not act precisely because she believes that, having sinned so deeply, she and her slave-owning family of the past, deserve their fates. 
      Certainly there are moments when, caught up in her loving memories of life at the estate, of life beside a lake that also contains of the largest cherry orchards in Russia, that she appears to be living in a dream. Yet, we often catch a glint in her eyes of steely determination, perceive a quiver about the lips of terror, making it quite clear that the woman everyone else perceives as frail, has a heart, perhaps, of rock. In Rampling’s deeply moving portrait, Ranyevskaya has already died, and her only real role is to help her beloved, daughters, Anya and Varya (Katrin Cartlidge) her brother and her servants realize that they too will soon be homeless, if not dead themselves. If only she could marry off her daughters, perhaps they, at least, might be saved.

     Perhaps for that very reason, Lopahin, in this film version, is not portrayed as the utter villain he has been, as critics have pointed out, in many stage productions. Here, despite his  inability to comprehend the family’s adoration of the house and land which surely represent their sacrificial pyre, he attempts, again and again, to help and save them. Yet, the one thing that he might do to redeem any of them, to marry Varya, he simply cannot accomplish. Besides, he is already married—to his money and to his determination of rectify his own past. For a moment, this far more gentle Lopahin, at least during the estate auction, might, we can for a moment imagine, might be fighting for his own gain, but on behalf of the family he has attempted to warn. Yet, in the end, he is still a kind of monster, unable to even allow them a few more moments of peace before the hack of axe put to the cherry trees can be heard in the distance (here actually visualized). 
      The only one who truly might have escaped is Anya, particularly after she meets up again the former family tutor, Trofimov (Andrew Howard), who, as the eternal student attempts to educate her about what the future will soon bring, a complete transformation of cultural order. And, for moment, she seems to perceive the truth: that all the beauty about them, the rambling house and its orchards, has never been “theirs” (the wealthy and elite), but was created by the serfs. As she puts it, “the place has not really been ‘theirs’ for a very long time.” But, of course, Trofimov has no money, and can offer her no protection from what is soon to occur, even if they survive: the complete destruction of their kind.
      There are some problems with Cacoyannis’ telling. At times, in his attempt to let the story tell itself, the director’s script is simply too oblique. It is hard, for example, to quite know what the role of Yasha (Gerald Butler) is all about. How, precisely, as he somehow attached himself to Ranyevskaya and how, later, does he fall in—although it makes perfect sense—with Lopahin? And it is hard to comprehend why Trofimov, given his current values, has even bothered to return, except perhaps for his sublimated love of both Anya and her mother. And, except as comic relief, why does the German-educated Ivanovna even exist. Obviously these are problems in Chekhov’s original as well.
      Overall, however, Cacoyannis does a quite splendid job of portraying both the humor—which I might have put a little more in the foreground—and the sadness of events in this grand melodrama of the end of 19th century Russia. Yes, these folk, like those in Vanya, are all quite tired and, at times, boring. But here, there are indications of the joyous folk they once were. And Rampling as Ranyevskaya makes such a remarkably astounding ghost.

Los Angeles, May 12, 2017

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