By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 16, 2012 at 3:58PM
Helmed by the provocative and morbidly funny Russian filmmaker Aleksey Balabanov ("Cargo 200," "A Stoker"), "Morphia" is almost certainly the best adaptation of a novel or short story written by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov is most famous for having written the surreal, allegorical fantasy "The Master and the Margarita," but there hasn’t been a really good adaptation of 'Master' made yet. "Morphia" (translated from the Russian “Morphine”) however retains both Bulgakov’s imagistic style and Balabanov’s bitterly funny cynicism, too. Balabanov’s film is based primarily on Bulgakov’s short stories, and political feuilletons. Mikhail (Leonid Bichevin), a fresh-faced medical student, is enlisted to serve as the primary physician in a small, isolated Russian village at the turn of the 20th century. When treating one patient with morphine, he becomes addicted to the sedative and grows increasingly dependent on the stuff. Balabanov’s film is probably his most compelling to date because, weirdly enough, it's his least grindingly bleak. The silent film aesthetic that his film sometimes assumes, the kind that he briefly dabbles with at the end of "A Stoker," is compelling here because it bolsters the kind of morally ambivalent impressionistic narrative that Bulgakov excelled at. In that sense, it makes sense that Balabanov should excel at adapting Bulgakov’s sensibility to the screen. The bitter comedy in both men’s work comes from class inequality, specifically how the unchecked abuse of power allows otherwordly, malevolent forces to oppress the poor. "Morphia" is nothing if not brutal, but that brutality can also be very funny.
While the works of Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni were the ones most easily ridiculed when American comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s tried to spoof or satirize the pretentiousness of European art films (think folks like SCTV), Bernardo Bertollucci’s oeuvre must be thrown in this same group for consideration. Don’t get it twisted -- “The Conformist,” “Last Tango in Paris,” “The Last Emperor” -- are all classics, but perhaps unlike the two aforementioned auteurs, Bertolucci’s body of work was always consistently uneven. For every “The Spider's Stratagem,” there’s a “Luna” (a little bit risible) or a masterpiece that can’t find a way out of itself (see “1900”). Which leads us to “Partner,” Bertolluci’s nearly unwatchable New Wave-inspired take on Dostoyevsky's “The Double” (which "Submarine" helmer Richard Ayoade is working on a new, modern-day take with Jesse Eisenberg to be released next year). The novella centers on a government clerk who goes mad, obsessed by the idea that a fellow colleague has usurped his identity. It deals with the internal psychological struggle of its main character and his doppelganger. Bertolluci’s unorthodox take on the material features an anarchic performance by Pierre Clementi (the sexually ambiguous chauffeur in “The Conformist”) and eschews traditional narrative and any exposition in favor of something much more chaotic. Clementi stars in dual roles of an disillusioned student and his deranged double -- a radical alter ego that he creates. Influenced by Jean-Luc Godard (too influenced, one might say) the film is more or less a series of experiments and most of them are fairly intolerable -- like Godard’s late ‘60s/early ‘70s period there’s a lot of arguing, polemics and shots fired at various political ideologies. So, in short, Bertolucci uses the basic doppelganger conceit, but squanders it pretty quickly. Thank god, he mostly returned to narrative as this exercise is for the curious and highly tolerant only.
There's a new one in the works starring Katie Holmes, Allison Janney, William Hurt, Jean Reno and Mark Rylance, but in its absence, we're still lacking a defining screen version of the greatest play that ever came out of Russia, Anton Chekhov's "The Seagull" (if you ask us, Wes Anderson should do it). However the new film by Christian Camargo turns out, one thing's for certain, despite the talent involved, Sidney Lumet's 1968 adaptation, pointlessly punctuated as "The Sea Gull," can be improved upon. Lumet assembled an impressive cast, led by James Mason, Vanessa Redgrave, David Warner, Denholm Elliot and the great French star Simone Signoret, and shot on a lush Swedish location, but surprisingly, given his success with stage adaptations like "Twelve Angry Men" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night," seems to have something of a tin ear for Chekhov. The writer always described the play as a comedy, and the very best productions have always been the ones which play it as such, but Lumet's cast seem overwhelmed by tragedy. It's oddly taste-free, for a man who made so many great choices: Gerry Fisher's softly pastoral photography is misjudged, making the film pretty at the expense of truth, while the famous ending is entirely botched by the director's decision to cut away to Konstantin's body. Signoret and Redgrave both seem a little miscast, although Warner and Elliott, in particular, are superb. One for Chekhov completists only, really.
"Two Lovers" and "Le Notti Bianche" are both partially based on Dostoyevsky’s short story “White Nights,” but beyond that, the two films are strikingly different. This is mostly because James Gray’s recent film makes even more drastic changes to Dostoyevsky’s source material than Luchino Visconti’s does. As in “White Nights,” both films follow awkward, introverted lovers that only become involved after one character is already involved in a relationship that’s been approved by their parents. In "Le Notti Bianche," Maria Schell waits on Jean Marais, who wins over Schell’s doddering grandmother, then Schell, and then mysteriously abandons his conquest. In "Two Lovers," Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his mercurial new neighbor (Gwyneth Paltrow) while he also has feelings for Vinessa Shaw, who plays the girl his parents have arranged for him to marry. Gray’s film is notably more impressionistic than Visconti’s because 'Bianche' deliberately doesn’t try to recreate the first person-perspective of Dostoyevsky’s story. Visconti’s protagonist is also strikingly different in that Marcello Mastroianni, the awkward young man that tries to win Schell over, is shown turning down another woman while he ineffectually courts Schell. In that sense, both films are unique products of their time and locations. Like Fellini’s "I Vitelloni" before it, "Le Notti Bianche" shows how simultaneously familiar and alien life can in a small town full can be. The modern-day Brooklynites in "Two Lovers" are by contrast already so alienated that effectively are their own community of apathetic strangers.
Though it significantly pares down Tolstoy's narrative, the 1956 adaptation of "War and Peace" is exceptional in that it's both gigantic in its scope, and detailed enough to be memorably intimate. For example, the scene where the naive Natasha, played by the effervescent Audrey Hepburn, practices her look of "disdain" and fails miserably, stands out as a sign of how balanced this Dino Di Laurentiis-produced, Nino Rota-scored, Jack Cardiff-shot, and King Vidor-helmed epic is. In fact, while Henry Fonda's performance as Pierre is often arresting, especially during the film's stirring duel scene, Hepburn's Natasha and Mel Ferrer's Prince Andrei Bolkonsky really ground the film. As doomed lovers, she's stubbornly convinced of the nobility and excitement of war, while he's wracked with guilt over being unable to do anything but survive the Napoleonic Wars. Both Andrei and Natasha are so well rendered as characters that while they don't have many scenes together, are yet still totally convincing in their longing for each other. But ultimately, it's Vidor's knack for pacing that makes the first Hollywood adaptation of "War and Peace" memorable. Andre's conversations with Napoleon (a scene-stealing Herbert Lom) are as exciting as the battlefield scenes, and as emotionally involving as Pierre's long march back home, because Vidor knew exactly how to proportionally condense Tolstoy's gargantuan plot. His vision of that famous narrative is often impressive for its ostentatious confidence, making it that rare post-"Gone with the Wind" Hollywood epic that feels genuinely massive.
- Oliver Lyttelton, Simon Abrams, Rodrigo Perez