Based on a short story by Anton Chekov and produced by the Soviet Union's Lenfilm Studios in commemoration of his centenary, Iosif Kheifits's film of The Lady with the Dog (Dama s sobachkoy, or Дама с собачкой , 1960) is a slight but visually beautiful, well-acted and faithful adaptation. Chekhov scholars and enthusiasts with find it rewarding; from a cineaste's perspective, I found it interesting and well-made but not quite the "forgotten masterpiece of Soviet cinema" as touted on the box.
Set in late-19th century Czarist Russia, The Lady with the Dog's title character is Anna Sergeyevna (Iya Sawina), a married woman vacationing in Yalta. A striking figure, Anna's daily walks along the seashore attract the attention of various men, including Moscow banker Dmitriy Dmitrich Gurov (Alexei Batalov, later to win acclaim for his role in Moscow Does Not Believe in Tears), also wealthy, also married.
They embark upon an affair, though eventually Anna's German husband sends for her and she must return to her provincial home, far from both Yalta and Moscow. They are both very adult, very refined about the end of their affair, but upon his return in Moscow the emptiness of Dmitriy's existence becomes clear to him. Though his wife is loving and affectionate, as are his daughter and two sons, he chooses to spend his evenings carousing with Russia's privileged class, gambling and drinking the night away. Gradually, he becomes obsessed with Anna, and feigning a business trip to St. Petersburg, conspires to visit her in her hometown.
The film of The Lady with a Dog was produced during a period when Soviet cinema was somewhat less dogmatic, when literary adaptations weren't necessarily infused with Cold War propaganda. There are some interesting contrasts between the elitist Muscovites and the hoi polloi - in one scene Dmitriy's friend, wanting privacy, continuously tosses silverware on the floor at a restaurant, prompting the waiter to leave them momentarily to replace the soiled utensils - but it's expressed delicately, more along the lines of E.M. Forster or a Merchant-Ivory film, than in the ham-fisted manner one might have expected.
The film is well-made but somewhat conventional. It doesn't have the striking cinematic qualities of, say, The Cranes Are Flying (also starring Batalov) or Sergei Bondarchuk's later War and Peace (1965-67), though it evocatively recreates its settings. Two cinematographers are credited: Dmitri Meskhiyev and Andrei Moskvin; I don't know this but suspect one may have shot all the studio interiors while the other shot all the location and exterior studio footage. The film's interior scenes are rather ordinary but the footage in Yalta is extremely beautiful, presenting a kind of austere paradise, while the scenes in Moscow are authentically pre-Revolution-looking, and use the 19th century architecture in interesting ways, most obviously in the last shots of the film.
The box text describes the film as "told with little dialogue and minimal action" which is misleading. There's not significantly less dialogue or action than the average 90-minute film, though the good performances are understated and internalized, with Iya Sawina's meek little voice barely above a whisper in some scenes, and Alexei Batalov, outwardly at least, is reticent and unmovable, trapped in a social structure from which he cannot escape. As Anna tells her lover near the end of the film, they are "...like a pair of birds of passage. They've been caught and forced into separate cages."
Video & Audio
The Lady with the Dog was previously released to DVD on the Ruscico label. I've not seen that edition but many other Ruscico titles, and based on those one suspects that DVD had more to offer in terms of subtitle and audio options, and probably in terms of extras as well. Conversely, this all-region Facets release has no Extra Features at all, and optional English subtitles only, but the transfer is probably significantly better. Indeed, the transfer here is just about flawless; despite its age there are no signs of damage or wear like many Soviet-era films. This black and white production looks almost brand-new, and the Russian audio is strong.
The Lady with the Dog is a literate, delicate and satisfying film, though slight. Both existentialist and humanist at once, its fine performances and cinematography are its greatest assets, and the film is Highly Recommended.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's new three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel.