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Category: The Cherry Orchard Reviews
Article Date: May 10, 2002 | Publication: Film Freak Central | Author: Walter Chaw

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Screenplay by Michael Cacoyannis, based on the play by Anton Chekov
directed by Michael Cacoyannis

Written at the end of his life in 1904, "The Cherry Orchard" is the last of Anton Chekov's great masterpieces, so ethereal it verges on the surreal and so circular it approaches the ineffable and the serene. The work is as balanced between its condemnation as it is winsome in its distillation of a lifetime spent in observation. By turns, it is also humanistic and mordantly funny, capturing a period of time (just prior to the Russian Revolution of 1905) in a way that perhaps no other play ever has any other period. Produced under some duress from Moscow Art Theater co-founders Konstantin Stanislavsky and Vladimir Nemirovich-Danchenko, Chekov began work on "The Cherry Orchard" in 1903--putting off the MAT pair with vague promises of a new farce or vaudeville. What Chekov finally presented was what Stanislavsky feared: "...Instead of a farce again we shall have a great big tragedy."

Now nearing the end of his own life and career, seventy-nine-year old director Michael Cacoyannis (seventy-seven at the time of the film's initial release) probably saw an adaptation of "The Cherry Orchard" as a fitting coda for a career that reached its pinnacle with 1964's Zorba the Greek. As Nemirovich-Danchenko wrote in a letter dated April 25, 1896 about the calamitous failure of Chekov's premiere of "The Seagull": "['The Seagull'] enthrals me and I will stake anything you like that these hidden dramas and tragedies in every character of the play, given a skilful...production without banalities, can enthral the auditorium, too." The key to this phrase is the necessity for Chekov's works to be given a skilful production free of banalities--without an even hand and a firm understanding of the playwright's political and humanistic intentions. With the absence of an appreciation for Chekov's economy and sly appreciation of farce, one is left with a stultifying disaster.

Michael Cacoyannis' The Cherry Orchard ("Varya") is just such a disaster. Detailing the last days of the discrete charm of the Russian bourgeoisie, the film revolves around the sale of the titular orchard and the Russian estate around which it grows, right out from under the vigorously unconcerned Ranyevskaya (Charlotte Rampling) and her brother Gayev (Alan Bates). It symbolizes, of course, the passing of an imperious age into the jaws of the looming revolution (predicted by an escalating Sino-Russo conflict, the ineffectiveness of Czar Nicholas' reign, and the shocking disregard for the rights of the 1860-freed serfs) but rather than sadness, Chekov expresses a kind of fatalistic melancholy: a sense of mourning tied with a recognition of change inevitable. Cacoyannis' vision is far less mature, interpreting the play as a call for pity and sympathy for anachronistic phantasms haunting the imagined glory of their own pasts.

The performances, particularly Rampling's blithely feckless Ranyevskaya, capture the appropriate level of ghostly detachment, but Cacoyannis' insistence that we feel sorry for these people is almost antithetical to Chekov's balanced wisdom and leaves Rampling's turn adrift and embarrassed. I'm not entirely comfortable saying that the actress is terrible in The Cherry Orchard; sufficed to say that her character is lost in a bad interpretation. The direction is clunky, the cinematography is wrong, the attempts to spread out the film with a prologue backstory and an "expansion" of the interiors are wrong, and Ashkenazy's tinkling Tchaikovsky functioning as an endless irritation beneath almost every scene (recalling a silent movie score in its insistence), is, yes, very wrong. Underlit and blocked exactly like a theatrical performance, The Cherry Orchard feels stagy. The only moment that rings with poetry is a closing champagne toast, recalling that the imbibing of champagne in the German medical tradition (the tradition in which Chekov received treatment and last rites for his tuberculosis) is the pronouncement of hopelessness. Chin chin.* (out of four)


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