When I was growing up during the late 40’s and 50’s in Australia a Saturday matinee at the movies was a regular occurrence. Rolling Jaffas down the aisle, hanging out with friends at interval at the Boomerang picture theatre where we enjoyed two films each side of a half hour interval, was the norm. And, we kept coming back for more.
Nowadays if you mention to someone you are going to take in two movies at one sitting, they look at you as if you are quite dotty. However at the Alliance Française French Film Festival once a year, you can still get away with it. My Saturday matinee at Palace Como screened polar opposite movies.
Understated and expressive, the first Anton Tchékov 1890 is an historical drama beautifully restrained and intelligent. The second a comedic farce set in modern day Paris. L’étudiante et Monsieur Henri is suitably lighthearted, sure to be an audience favourite.
Nicolas Giraud plays Pushkin Prize winning famous Russian physician, playwright, novelist and short story writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) much admired by the man he revered above all else, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) author of ‘realistic fiction’.
Leo Tolstoy (Frédéric Pierrot) created larger than life characters such as Anna Karenina, Natasha and Andrei of War, and Peace fame, exploring why people behave as they do.
Chekov was a master of complex plots that did not have ‘simple’ solutions, in fact quite the opposite. They were like he was, without firm political and social views, a man who sought refuge from love, urban life, and its many norms.
It was 1886 when he received a letter of praise from Dmitry Grigorovich, an elder statesman of Russian letters and by the spring of 1888, Chekov had amassed an unbelievable 528 stories.
He had an extraordinary skill for evoking landscape… the stars grew pale and misty. Voices rang out here and there. Acrid blue-grey smoke billowed from the village chimneys …
With his father insolvent Anton Chekov took on the responsibility as head of his family after leaving University and this film covers a decade of his life from the mid 1880’s onward.
“Medicine is my lawful wife”, Chekov once said, “and literature is my mistress” and in this fine film written and directed by Rene Feret, he emphasizes that his hero ‘doesn’t do love’.
He also portrays just how much his family rely on Anton for their own existence living a well-off bourgeoise style of life, that sees them living in close proximity to each other.
Chekov’s success as a writer in adult life required self-sacrifice, not just from himself, but also from his siblings who loved him.
In particular his sister Mariya (Macha: Lolita Chammah).
She remained unmarried to care from him and help him with his work.
His beloved brothers Nikolai (Kolia), played warmly and with empathy by Robinson Stévenin and Alexander (Brontis Jodorowsky) also come home from the city to provide their support.
There is a lot going on just below the surface and Director Rene Feret coaxes a truly superb performance with great strength from Nicolas Giraud as Anton Chekov. He is able to convey deep emotion with just a flicker of recognition on his face.
Anton Chekov’s dramas were haunting, lyrical, creating an atmosphere that explored and prodded in order to understand who his characters were, using humour as an important ingredient. We gain a sense of that from Feret as Anton Chekov’s own life plays out in this way as well.
We encounter Chekov during the second half of the 1880’s his most productive stage and at the height of his friendship with millionaire magnate Alexey Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffé), who owned one of the most popular papers in St Petersburg.
From 1886, Suvorin paid Chekov three times the going rate for a writer just to secure his stories for his newspaper, enabling him to secure a country estate.
His family is respectful of their father figurehead because of his proven literary and medical talents.
Lika Nuzubiva (Jenna Thiam) his sister’s married best friend throws herself at Anton until he stops resisting, to become his mistress, although she will end up leaving him for her own sanity.
One simple effective scene in which his Mother (Michelle L’Aminot), Sister and his Mistress all stand in silence in the corridor, waiting for the noise of a pen scratching on paper in Anton’s study to end before they make a noise again is very telling.
The scenes of his dalliances with Lika are revealing in every sense, while telling a tale of a complex man who in some ways was living at odds with the rest of Russian society, while conforming to the aristocratic idea and behaviour that a ‘mistress’ must be married. The double standards said it didn’t matter if you cuckolded another man’s wife.
Nikolai died in 1889 as Anton does a few years later aged only 44, both from the all encompassing and quite dreadful consumptive disease of the time and its effects; Tuberculosis.
The movie basically pinnacles with Chekov’s well-documented long and arduous trip to the notorious penal settlement on the remote island of Sakhalin, some 6,000 odd miles east of Moscow on the other side of Siberia (1890-1894).
He was fulfilling a promise made to his brother Nicolai, to help reform its outmoded prisoner practices.
During his time there he wrote about its ‘extreme limits’ of degradation including floggings, embezzlement of supplies and the forced prostitution of women’.
Chekhov studied local conditions, conducting a census of the islanders and later publishing his findings as a research thesis, which attained an honoured place in the annals of Russian penology: The Island of Sakhalin (1893–94).
This is not a light-hearted tale, but it’s superbly told, beautifully photographed, wonderfully acted by the cast, especially Nicolas Giraud, and it haunts the memory long after.
Emerging out into the light for interval and a respite before the next film, the foyer was buzzing with people talking about this movie prior to their next, so I was not the only one enjoying a ‘double’.
The programming proved advantageous in the way it fell. The serious first, the comedic second.
The Student and Mr Henri was billed as the sort of light hearted movie you want to see after a big drama, although I will always choose drama over comedy any day.
This is the story of an irascible old Frenchman (Claude Brasseur) living in a well to do part of Paris.
Basically he’s a bored old codger who in old age has decided he does not like the flighty female named Valerie his son Paul has been married to for ten years. So as much as he can, he exudes his displeasure.
There are no children and so he does his best to persuade a leggy lovely young student Constance (Noémie Schmidt) to whom he’s decided to let his spare room in Paris an almost impossible thing to find, to make his 40-year-old son fall in love with her in exchange for some free rent.
Pretty underhanded stuff for a ‘loving parent’ to do.
Constance is ambitious, she’s wanting to get away from her all controlling father in Orleans, and so agrees. This is helped by the fact she has also discovered just how lucky she is to have found such a place to live in Paris at all, and so the farce begins.
Television comic Guillaume de Tonquédec really carries the weight of this movie and he infuses Paul with a certain boyish charm.
Brasseur holds centre stage as the old ‘codger’ Henri. He may have good intentions, but he was a little lack lustre for me and didn’t quite hit the mark, although his antics seemed to fill those around me with great mirth.
Henri discovers Constance’s father is insisting she come home and work for him before she can explore all her own options to live an ‘exciting life’.
Ironically Henri urges her to stand up to her father, although it turns out to be his own wake up call, one that will allow him to eventually redeem himself in the eyes of the son he loves before he dies.
Henri discovers Constance has an ability to compose music and encourages her to pursue her dreams with his help, stage-managing her to attend an audition at a musical academy in London. Sadly, like all the other chances she has fluffed, she falls at the last hurdle although she lies to him so he can die happy.
Constance is a young woman of today whom we can see has had some standards of good behaviour infused into her psyche deep down by her regionally located parents, despite her attention span being seemingly limited and her ability to go with the flow even if it means a lie or two, not too bothering for her conscience.
Not wanting to hurt Paul or Valerie, who in their own way have been good to her, while she does finally stand up to both Henri and her father, taking charge of her own life, she finds it comes albeit, with a bonus.
Henri’s lovely apartment in the best part of Paris is given to her by the kindly Paul so she can complete her studies, which we understand may just take a while.
She has learned her lessons well, that if she is to follow her dreams she must not waste a minute or an opportunity, making every post a winner.
Naomie Schmidt was just convincing as Constance, but didn’t seem to me to get into the swing of it all really.
Truly this was light hearted and I could see why it may be popular, but to my mind it really didn’t deserve that many bouquets as the laughter around me would suggest.
Not nearly a patch on the Festival’s true comedic delight to date: Rosalie Blum
Anton Checkov and Monsieur Henri, as it turned out, were indeed polar opposites.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016
Watch the Trailer
Watch the Trailer
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2016