VIFF review: Anton Chekhov – 1890

Anton Chekhov — 1890 is both a triumph in its ambitions, but also a victim of its own creative choices. Although the final work is undoubtedly interesting and, at times, enjoyable, it fails to resonate to the levels it could had choices in tone and direction been different.

The film begins with the arrival of two men at Chekov’s home one night. They stow away to Anton Chekhov’s (Nicolas Giraud) study and inform him that they believe he is a genius whom they shall elevate to great wealth and fame with their financial backing and publishing. It is from here the plot begins as we witness the understated doctor’s ascent to his apex of creativity in 1890 when he began his work at a prison on Sakhalin Island.

Part of what is so commendable about this film is its resistance to the traditional birth-to-death biopic structure and also the plotting centred around great achievement or conflict. In fact, this film seems to exist more in-between a lot of the moments other films might seek to capitalize on. For example, only once do we see one of his plays performed and, when it is, it is in rehearsal. Instead, we are given much of Chekhov at his quietest and most personal moments with only a few defining ones.

 Although this unique structuring serves it well, there are many technical aspects of the film which cause it to be flawed. It is evident that Director René Féret sought to emulate the detachment of Chekhov in his film through editing, score and cinematography. However, it in turn makes it hard to come away from the work with a sense of any true emotional resonance. 

On that note, the score in the film is sparse. It rarely surpasses a cluster of notes on a piano and when it does, it is abruptly ended midway by a sharp cut to silence. In addition, the use of shaky-cam is abominable. It is possible this was the director’s way of trying to make rather still scenes more vivid, but instead it distracts. The story itself also leaves several holes which fail to justify the magnitude of some relationships and the failure of others. There is one in particular which, though interesting, remains unexplained. As a result, it seems almost comical when it becomes sincere. We are also perpetually told that Chekhov is going through great emotional cataclysms, but see them manifest in no other way. As a result, we can find no association in them.

In the end, this becomes more of an academic work than an emotional one. Although all performances are excellent and there is evidently great thought put into its production, Anton Chekhov—1890 can be no more than an interesting film — but not quite enough for it to be a memorable one.