Ivan Andreyevich Laevsky is a superfluous man (lyishniy chelovek) – one of a breed of indolent, selfish characters that haunt the pages of 19th century Russian novels. A minor civil servant by profession, Laevsky has run off to the Caucasus with Nadia, another man’s wife, where their illicit relationship can blossom in close proximity to nature.
But their idyll turns out to be more prison than paradise. The only thing that flourishes in this beautiful landscape, lapped by the Black Sea, is Laevsky’s descent into hedonism, self-pity and self-loathing. Like Dostoyevsky’s ‘underground man’, he takes a strange pride in his own worthlessness, spending his days playing cards and drinking with his Bohemian cronies. At the same time he wants to be known as a man of intelligence and sensitivity who is stifled by the boredom of provincial life.
Even his relationship with his mistress has turned sour. For while he still desires her with an animal lust, he feels the liaison is killing him – a belief that is psychologically necessary if he is to avoid taking all the blame for his own decadence. When he learns that Nadia’s husband has died, raising the possibility of marriage, his first impulse is to flee in panic.
Laevsky is a mass of contradictions, like so many of the highly realistic characters created by Anton Chekhov, a writer who never saw the world in terms of moral absolutes. All Chekhov’s characters are flawed, prone to bouts of weak will or self-delusion, tormented by pride or insecurity. Their vacillations reflect the spirit of an era in which the age-old traditions of Mother Russia were being eroded by new ideas, both scientific and political. It is the twlight of the Tsars, but the future looms as an invisible threat. Chekhov shows us a community of spiritually uprooted middle-class people for whom the accepted codes of behaviour have become empty forms.
All of this is conveyed in Dover Koshashvili’s sensitive adaptation of Chekhov’s longest piece of prose fiction, The Duel (1891). The entire enterprise is such a cultural collage it should never have succeeded: an American production of a Russian story, directed by an Israeli, shot in Croatia, using a cast of mostly Irish actors.
Perhaps a Chekhov production thrives on such complexities. Koshashvili’s direction is sure-footed from start to finish, showing a talent for irony and understatement. The film is sumptuous to look at, and the acting is superb. It would be almost too petty to go searching for flaws. The stiffest or most banal lines only seem to reflect the formal manners of the day. The music might be a little too insistent in a lesser movie, but here it feels just right. A few passages get muffled and mumbled, but this does not detract from the story.
The film belongs to three actors: Andrew Scott, whose febrile, brooding Laevsky is a masterly portrayal of Chekhovian man; Fiona Glascott, whose red lips and peaches-and-cream complexion conceal an insecure personality, riven by passions and regrets; and Tobias Menzies as Van Koren, a self-confident zoologist who views Laevsky as an inferior, potentially dangerous life form. The supporting cast is also excellent, but the drama revolves around these three characters – not as a love triangle, but as three different world views in collision.
Van Koren has an instinctive loathing for Laevsky which he tries to rationalise in quasi-scientific terms. “When the Laevskys multiply,” he says, “mankind will degenerate utterly. Civilisation will perish.” Here one catches a hint of the logic that will drive the genocidal regimes of the twentieth century.
Nadia craves the admiration of men, and the acceptance of other women, but her adulterous background leaves her as a marginal figure. For males she holds the promise of sexual availabilty, for her peers she is a scandal. She and Laevsky have become co-dependent, their love indistinguishable from their misery. In a small, provincial town, her anxieties can only keep multiplying.
The duel itself is both climax and anti-climax. It is a clash between Laevsky’s tortured Russian soul, and Van Koren’s rationalism. When Van Koren tells Laevsky he accepts his challenge, Laevsky cannot understand how he supposedly made any challenge. For Van Koren the duel is almost a biological necessity, like two blind moles fighting for the same piece of earth. He can exterminate the germ that is Laevsky, or to accept that he too has his place in the human race.
Although he was a doctor by profession, Chekhov refused to believe that anatomy was destiny. He rejected neo-Darwinian arguments that we are predisposed ‘by nature’ to certain attitudes and behaviours, and he shows that both Laevsky and Van Koren are not set immutably in the roles they profess. By the end of this tale we understand that the superfluous man and the man of science are ultimately part of the same species.
The Duel, USA, rated PG, 89 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, June 09, 2012