'Anton Chekhov — 1890': Film Review

Courtesy of JML
Anton Chekhov's life in his own style

The famous Russian playwright and master of the short story is brought to understated yet expressive life in French director Rene Feret's biopic.

The life of Russia’s maestro of literary subtext comes to appropriately understated life in Anton Chekhov — 1890, from French director Rene Feret (Mozart’s Sister). Much of the film’s success depends on the emotionally expansive yet outwardly often appropriately restrained performance of Nicolas Giraud in the title role which might come as something of a surprise for stateside viewers who only recognize him as one of the kidnappers from the original Taken. Despite what the nonsensical title might suggest, the film covers a period that roughly corresponds to 1886-1896, stretching from the discovery of the Russian physician as an important new literary voice by some of his peers to his rehearsals for his first major play, The Seagull. This auteur-driven drama was released in France in March to solid reviews and should be catnip for filmweek-type events and festivals.

The entire Chekhov family is supported by Anton, who is not only a doctor but who, to supplement his income, writes stories for papers and magazines. When two men from the big city, Grigorovitch (Philippe Nahon) and Suvorin (Jacques Bonnaffe), among Russia’s most famous writers and editors, respectively, stop by at his house, they inform Anton of his impressive literary talents and offer him a gig writing for one of Suvorin’s papers for a price that’s far above what the competitors are paying, ensuring he’ll further develop his talent.

Almost contemporarily, a new girl with long auburn hair, Lika (Jenna Thiam), has joined the literature class of Anton’s beloved sister, Macha (Lolita Chammah), though only, as she not much later reveals in an intimate tete-a-tete with Anton, so she can be closer to him, since she has a literary crush that she hopes to take one step further. It’s here that Feret, who also wrote the screenplay, makes it clear that his protagonist is something of an odd duck, as he simply states that he “doesn’t do love,” though Lika’s insistence finally wins out and the two do start a physical relationship. Scenes like this one are both intimate and expansive at the same time, suggesting something about the complex private character of Anton, who tries to keep his desires from intruding on his mind and vice versa, while at the same time suggesting something about the kind of characters Chekhov wrote about. Impressively, Feret manages to do just that without having to go into detail about any one text or resorting to the psychologically reductive idea that all writers simply are their characters.

There’s a strong sense of the entire family relying on Anton. They all live in close quarters in the Chekhov family home that Anton oversees, and Veronica Fruhbrodt's sets help express the seemingly contradictory notion that the family is part of the well-off bourgeoisie but at the same time is always uncomfortably cramped together under one roof. Chekhov holds the entire family together, not only financially but also in a more paternal manner, for example when he successfully manages to cajole his brothers, Kolya (Robinson Stevenin) and Alexander (Brontis Jodorowsky) into coming back to the family home in the country instead of wasting away their lives in the big city, pretending to be artists and living with prostitutes. And the entire family is very respectful of their substitute father, with his proven literary and medical talents, as evidenced in a simple but very effective scene in which his mother (Michelle L’Aminot), sister and lover 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 can make noise again. 

One of the writer’s most formative experiences, a long sojourn on Sakhalin Island (north of Japan) after the death of one of his siblings, marks a major turning point. Before leaving, Chekhov wants to give up literature but through his journalistic study of a penal colony in rural Russia he finds that writing can have a purpose, which would lead to the creation of his great plays upon his return. As elsewhere, Feret keeps the tone understated throughout, with almost all of the drama in the subtext, much like in his own dramatic works.

It’s a major gamble to tell Chekhov’s story in a style akin to his own (albeit in French) but one that finally pays off. This can be credited not only to Feret’s precise writing and direction but also to the strength of Giraud as a performer, as he manages to project his character’s emotions with just a look or the tiniest of facial movements. Indeed, the loosely handheld aesthetic of cinematographer Lucas Bernard and the copious amounts of facial hair on the Chekhov brothers and their friends at times almost suggest a modern hipster take on what could have potentially been a very stuffy subject. The tattoos might be missing but the subjects are indeed very much alive.

Production company: Les Films Alyne

Cast: Nicolas Giraud, Lolita Chammah, Robinson Stevenin, Jacques Bonnaffe, Jenna Thiam, Brontis Jodorowsky, Marie Feret, Alexandre Zeff, Philippe Nahon, Frederic Pierrot, Guy Cisterne, Albert Delpy

Writer-Director: Rene Feret

Producers: Rene Feret, Fabienne Feret

Director of photography: Lucas Bernard

Production designer: Veronica Fruhbrodt

Costume designer: Carole Gerard

Editor: Fabienne Feret

Music: Marie-Jeanne Serero

No rating, 96 minutes