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Movie Review: Louis Malle's VANYA ON 42ND STREET Offers a Near-Perfect Theatrical Experience

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For his second collaboration with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory (the first was 1981’s My Dinner with Andre), director Louis Malle filmed Gregory’s stage revival of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya.  Capturing a stageplay on-camera might seem less daring than presenting a two-hour conversation between theater wonks as the stuff of great drama, but never let it be said that Malle didn’t like a challenge.

Gregory’s take on Vanya qualified as underground art; for four years (roughly 1987 – 1991), he and his actors (including a pre-stardom Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, Lynn Cohen, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, and Shawn as Vanya) rehearsed the play at the abandoned Victory Theatre whenever their schedules allowed it, workshopping and unraveling the text in ways that a normal theatrical production schedule would not accommodate.

The rehearsals became the reason.  This troupe became so laser-focused on the process that the idea of public performances began to appear as a violation; on the Blu-ray’s wonderful behind-the-scenes documentary, Moore talks about how her frustration at the endless rehearsals turned into resentment when Gregory suggested that others outside their bubble enjoy the experience.  Finally, he and the cast reached an arrangement: they would hold twelve performances, and each actor would invite two guests.  Though no filmed record exists of those shows, the effect must have been revelatory.  Gregory would put the modest audience unbelievably close to the actors—for one scene, he even sat the guests at the same table that Moore and Gaynes were using as a prop—dissolving the line between stage and reality.  Gregory didn’t want his actors to emote; he wanted them to be, and that proximity meant the cast could perform in the moment, giving the audience the feeling of intruding on a series of personal conversations.

Shortly after Malle attended one such Vanya staging, he began discussing with Shawn and Gregory how they might convey that sense of audience intrusion onto film.  Talk about a Herculean task: a) film is inherent more impersonal than theater, and b) Malle still wanted the kind of careful blocking and editing unique to film that could risk bleeding out the play’s spontaneity.  A movie means lighting and yelling cut and production assistants, and producer Fred Berner recalls on that aforementioned documentary how jarring it was whenever P.A.’s walkie-talkie would interrupt an actor’s rhythms.

Yet the end result—titled Vanya on 42nd Street—achieves the impossible: it is quite possibly the greatest screen adaptation of a play, and its power comes from that central intimacy that Gregory cultivated.  For a movie that is nothing but talking, it maintains a relentless pace because you lose yourself in the moment, because you latch on to the words.

The film’s chief pleasure is watching these people work.  Malle uses the original cast (with the exception of Phoebe Brand, who replaced Ruth Nelson after she passed away), and you can immediately see how fully they have inhabited their characters; no one approaches their part from the expected.

We’ve seen Wallace Shawn’s gift for whiny dissatisfaction utilized in comedies, but as Vanya, he subverts that quality, displaying the frustration behind his jokes, the anger in his unhappiness.  When Vanya pantomimes hanging himself early on, the other characters laugh, but Shawn lets us in just enough to see the real cry for help.  Larry Pine uses his confidence and good humor so well that we (almost) start to find the cynically unpleasant Dr. Astrov attractive, while the pomposity of Gaynes’ aging Professor Serybryakov reflects personal uncertainty more than it does unwarranted self-worth.

Julianne Moore’s much-desired trophy wife is the biggest surprise.  Yelena is filled with conflicts driving her to inaction (which the other characters criticize as laziness): how she cares deeply for the Professor even though she feels she made a mistake marrying him, how she connects emotionally with Vanya even though his lust and desperation repel her, how she desires Astrov even though she knows they can never be.  All of this happens in her eyes, her voice.  The performance is a marvel of understatement.

And Malle, working alongside DP Declan Quinn, subtlety drops us into these people’s tortured psyches.  The film maintains the illusion of improvisation even as a careful viewing reveals Malle’s tight construction.  From the opening, which marries vérité naturalism to Chekhov’s text, we are held in a hazy, hyper-real spell, so much so that the movie moves from (seemingly) unscripted pre-stage banter to Vanya‘s opening lines without us noticing the change.  We regard Quinn’s mostly handheld camera, which Malle directs to have just the slightest wobble, reflecting the unsteady emotional terrain his characters occupy.  How fitting, too, that Malle lets Joshua Redman compose the spare jazz soundtrack; the great subjective music form deserves a great subjective movie such as this.  The only (slightly) bum note is a short monologue which Malle presents as voiceover rather than as spoken dialogue; for a moment, it pulls us from the delicate atmosphere he has wrought.

That atmosphere blows the stuffiness off the original text.  When I first saw the play, I found young Sonya’s final speech formally brilliant-yet-emotionally flat.  In the film, that same speech, rewritten through David Mamet’s cut-glass prose and delivered by Brooke Smith, is almost unbearably moving; Malle keeps his camera inches from her face, and we see how the words physically affect her.  That’s the magic of the movies, and Malle, and Andre Gregory’s wonderful play.

Criterion’s Blu-ray has given Vanya a lush, golden HD transfer that softens without stripping away detail; it and the crisp monaural DTS-HD Master Audio track are responsible for the picture’s lovely tone.  Features are few but thorough: we get that great half-hour documentary (which also features Shawn, Pine, Cohen, and Gregory), a trailer, and a booklet with articles from Steven Vineberg and Amy Taubin.

Louis Malle’s last film is one of his best; it has a power that transcends the screen.  Theater fans and casual movie buffs alike: this is a great one.

Vanya on 42nd Street is now available on Blu-ray.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.