Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): War and Peace

Thursday, September 4, 2008

War and Peace

Opening on barren, empty battlefields, whizzing past telephoto close-ups of grass and dirt with a bizarre, avant-garde audio collage enveloping the soundtrack, then soaring into the sky through clouds to reveal a breathtaking panorama, War and Peace immediately confounds expectations that it will be pedantic, stuffy, and overly solemn. Which is appropriate because the book it is adapting is similarly light on pretension and nimble in style, a fact often overlooked when regarding the tome's massive length, all-inclusive title, and daunting literary reputation. Like Tolstoy, Soviet director Sergei Bondarchuk delves into his material with gusto. War and Peace stutters and missteps more than the book it adapts - though it is often smoother as well - but Tolstoy's masterpiece also has an uneven quality - which is ironically one of its major strengths.


ADAPTATION

Generally accepted among cinephiles is the proposition that a movie be judged on its own merits, faithfulness to the text (in spirit or letter) be damned. This theory is more than a little silly - especially when you're dealing with a text stuffed with ideas and compelling approaches. Granted, it's a useful theory, given that most of us have more time to watch many movies than to read many books, and hence are in the habit of seeing pictures whose literary antecedents we're unfamiliar with. Furthermore, it has some credibility in that all art takes some sort of inspiration from life and art alike, but must ultimately stand or fall on its own merits. Fair and good, and perhaps I'll concede that a movie be judged on its own merits with the important caveat that there's always something to be gained by holding it up to its context.

War and Peace movie has a compelling relationship with War and Peace book. I caught it in Boston recently after missing one show in New York and several in the Northeast. Having only just finished the book (not at all coincidentally) it would be hard for me to regard it without reference to Tolstoy, nor would I want to. Its relationship to the novel is complex. While Bondarchuk is remarkably faithful to the events depicted in the story, there is also an unavoidable elision of the material at hand. More importantly, does the movie reflect the book's spirit? Here and there, yes and no - not only are book and film similarly uneven, bumpy, and winding in their long narrative sand alternation of focus and style, but even their differences are expressed in this form. Best to see the relationship between adaptation and adapted as a dance, touching here, letting go to waltz away and then return, drawn back inexorably to their bonds.

FOUR PARTS

The screening I attended was divided into four parts with intermissions between. Each part is titled for a specific character. This is not the case in the book, where Tolstoy spends the duration scrupulously alternating between his protagonists. But despite the fact the Bondarchuk follows the author's general patterns, each passage does cohere around one aspect of Tolstoy's saga. Part One is devoted to Prince Andrey Bolkonsky, an aristocrat like the other characters, but one who is restless and ambitious: he abandons his wife to fight Napoleon's army in Austria, 1805. Part Two follows Natalya Rostov, the captivating beauty who falls in love with Andrey only to betray him and herself in sudden passion which will than hang over her like a cloud. Part Three, the shortest, calls itself "1812" and appropriately enough, the period itself is as much of a character as any of the people who inhabit it. The bulk of this episode is occupied by the stunning and riveting, er...hell, fucking mind-blowing restaging of the Battle of Borodino. Part Four, while winding up all the individual storylines, is centred on Pierre Bezukhov, a feckless heir who has stumbled through his life but is spiritually liberated by Napoleon's invasion of Moscow and his subsequent imprisonment.

As previously stated, none of these passages focuses exclusively on any one person: all three of these individuals, along with a great many other characters, are present throughout, sometimes in large part even when it wasn't their name onscreen at the beginning. Yet Bondarchuk's organization makes sense because it focuses on the arc of each character - not the complete arc (they will develop and change over the whole seven-hour movie) but a tangible transformation. This could be seen as a bastardization of Tolstoy's more subtle method, but as the director hews closely to the source it doesn't feel vulgar, and I found it a compelling re-reading of the characters and their stories.

ANDREY BOLKONSKY

Andrey starts the film discontented but hoping for more, goes through a downward trajectory which sees him nearly die on the battlefield, only to return home in time for his wife's death in childbirth. All is bleak, and he compares himself to an oak tree which he observes standing desolate and ugly amidst the spring foliage: recognizing the foolishness of giddy emotions and holding back in an unappealing, but honest, isolation. Yet Andrey's passage does not end there. On a visit to the Rostov estate, he is taken by the vision of pretty adolescent Natalya, and even more so by her voice on a moonlit night, celebrating the romantic lunar beauty of the evening. Swept up in her innocent elation, his renewal begins and soon after he sees that oak again: it has lately bloomed in a full canopy of green leaves. His part of the film closes on the image of this rebirth.

Part One is somewhat cold and formal, appropriate enough for Andrey who, while my favorite character in the book, is admittedly a bit of a cold fish. Aloof and brooding, his sensibility guides the camera as it photographs soirees with a slightly slowed down, removed but elegant grace. The battle scenes, while impressive, are not as breathtaking as the later sequences of carnage and here as elsewhere in this chapter, we are held at a slight distance. At times the movie even seems to be mocking this solemnity, just as Andrey sometimes seems sardonic towards his own melancholy disposition (that tree is not so much a symbol of sadness as of bitterness). A shot of Andrey's pompous and humorless father walking through the woods, as a string section plays on the soundtrack, culminates with an old gag out of Mel Brooks' playbook. The elder Bolkonsky walks off screen right and as the camera follows him we catch a group of men sitting outdoors, actually playing the instruments we've been hearing.

I found Andrey's chapter to be the least engaging. The novel has a sprightly quality which is smothered in the film's occasionally glacial effect (it actually looks like Bondarchuk shot some scenes at a slightly slower speed, which is effective but a bit offputting this early on). Nimble thoughts on page become drawn out into long-winded dialogue and narration. Though the picture looks good and the sound is highly inventive, there's something just a little bit off. However, it's worth remembering that the book also took a little while to get into. And Andrey's passage ends on a fresh note, a harbinger of what's to come.

NATALYA ROSTOV

By closing Andrey's chapter with the presence of Natalya, the stage is set for Part Two, which opens with a recap of Natalya's blue, moonlit landscape. She is introduced early on as a slightly obnoxious girl in pigtails, running around her parents' parties and alternating pouts with squeals of delight. But by her nighttime soliloquy she is blossoming into a pretty, highly appealing young woman (since the movie was shot over a number of years, ballerina-turned-actress Lyudmila Savalyeva actually aged with her character). Her big coming-out occurs at a lavish ball in which she dances with Andrey and they fall in love. But she is still a child, and he goes away for a year; they will resume their engagement and marry on his return, if she so wishes. Natalya's life glides along in Andrey's absence. There is a hillside hunt in the brisk autumn air, a passionate Russian folk dance performed for her uncle by a warm fireside, nostalgic reminiscences of day past in the dark, empty house; a sleigh ride through the whirling snow with a group of travelling performers.

These episodes are unified by Natalya's lovely, naive exuberance and curiosity and by a lush, romantic style which echoes her innocence on a more wistful note. The camera sweeps around the dancers in the ballroom; it captures Natalya's passion in luminous close-ups and color and lighting take on new expressive tones in her presence. Again, the character has conveyed a mood to the director who expresses it not just in the actor's performance but in the entire mise-en-scene. When she attends the opera and is seduced by the handsome but cynical romancer Anatole Kuragin, the cutting and camerawork trip all over themselves in rapturous near-abandon, mired in desperation rather than romanticism. Natalya's desires express themselves in a grating but evocative crackling noise (it sounds like glass tinkling or shattering) which frequents the soundtrack paced with the rapid editing. Her lust almost leads her astray; but although her rendezvous with Anatole is obstructed, Andrey will have no more of her. Natalya's own journey has taken her from a healthy, excited, foolish youth to the life of a broken woman, dreams and illusions shattered, crushed by the realities of her misguided passion. All this in the space of a year.

This was the passage of the film which confirmed its greatness, and I much preferred it to Andrey's scenes. Savalyeva holds the screen with a kind of guileless expressiveness, and Bondarchuk drinks it all in. This chapter feels extremely tight, almost as if it could be its own film. Unlike Part One, which juxtaposes war and peace, Part Two focuses with laserlike clarity on peacetime and its consequent joys and heartbreaks. Yet at the end of Natalya's passage, we see the comet of 1812 frozen in the Russian sky and the words "1812" impose themselves on the screen like God's personal stamp. The music swells and once again we are on epic territory. The final image of Natalya's story is already far removed from her very personal struggles: Napoleon is astride his horse on the lip of a ravine, overlooking the march of thousands of soldiers across the Russian frontier. If Bondarchuk just presented Peace in isolation, now it's War's turn.

1812

Just as Pearl Harbor interrupts the personal melodrama of From Here to Eternity, sharply and violently cutting off the individual characters' subplots and bringing the picture to a halt, so Napoleon's invasion of Russia disrupts the peacetime society of Tolstoy's protagonists. In this chapter, named for a year rather than a person, Bondarchuk excludes virtually everything save the Battle of Borodino, in which Russians wounded the French Army's pride without stemming their march to Moscow.

Bondarchuk's achievement here is nothing less than extraordinary, hence the aforementioned expletive. It is mind-blowing. Given the unfortunate preference for unconvincing CGI these days, we may never again see spectacle of this texture and vibrancy. To be sure, this is not violent carnage of the war-is-hell Saving Private Ryan variety. It's not especially pleasant, of course, what with its brown, red and green dusty colored palette, garish bloodletting, and fiery explosions - but it is undoubtedly glorious and awe-inspiring. The camera races in lateral tracking shots past soldier after soldier, poofs of smoke dotting the horizon while huts burst into flames, cannons fire, and thousands upon thousands upon thousands of extras race across the field. Cuts are jarring, as we move in one direction than the other, up and down, from extreme (and I mean extreme) long shot to detailed close-up. Verbal explanations seem paltry in comparison to the experience; and for all his skill with prose I must confess that even Tolstoy's words can't quite match the spectacle Bondarchuk summons. Descriptions of Borodino, no matter how clearly delineated or evocatively phrased, are unable to capture the visceral sweep and scale of the thing. I don't know or care how accurate Bondarchuk's recreation is; the sequence justifies itself.

"1812" ends with a long narration extolling the patriotic virtue of the Russian forces, and condemning Napoleon as an arrogant brute. It may seem like a propagandistic Soviet insertion, but Tolstoy's text often strikes the same note. However, his celebrations of Russian spirit and disparagement of Bonaparte are accompanied by a deterministic theory and practice, expounded at great length. Indeed, half of the lengthy epilogue (and many other pages in the book's final parts) is devoted to repetitive historiography in which Tolstoy disparages individualistic notions of history. The author sees history as a vast ocean in which the meager boats of humanity have little choice but to float on the tide, with no hope of controlling the swirling waters beneath them.

Bondarchuk's film mostly abandons this deterministic vision, and the focus will return to the individual after the expansive quality of Part Three, in which most men do appear, formally at least, as little more than dots on a plain - each playing his small role.

PIERRE BEZUKHOV

Of all the major characters in War and Peace, Pierre has lost the most in translation. He seemed to me a bumbling bear of a man in the book, potentially powerful but curiously ineffective. As portrayed by the director himself, the film's Bezukhov seems more of a teddy bear than a grizzly, or perhaps Moley in The Wind in the Willows. He seems a bit lost, but not especially desperate. This isn't just a consequence of the physical portrayal, but also the elimination of certain subplots. War and Peace may be seven hours long, but with 1300 pages to choose from there's still a lot to eliminate. Ultimately, few of Andrey's or Natalya's important passages are lost, yet we see almost nothing of Pierre's development before the fourth and final sequence. Gone is his involvement with Freemasonry, his desperate restlessness, his failed attempts at charity. While present in the three earlier sections, he's usually at the service of the other characters. But there are some exceptions.

In Andrey's chapter we experience Pierre's ill-fated engagement to the attractive but vacant Helene. The soundtrack is silent but for the insipid dripping of a fountain near the bench where they sit like dates at a jr. high dance. The palpable discomfort is actually very amusing. Later Helene has an affair, and Pierre challenges her lover to a duel. The duel is one of the best sequences in the earlier part of the film; it is quiet and primarily visual and was one of my first indications that the film would succeed in cinematic terms. But Pierre seems feckless during the duel, as he later does wandering through Borodino in a top hat, dodging cannonballs while dressed as a gentleman out for a Sunday stroll. These sequences are in the book too, so did I just imagine Pierre's pent-up vitality?

Whatever you think of Bondarchuk's self-casting, he does throw himself into the role with abandon. Part Four finds Pierre stranded in Moscow after the French troops have marched into town. There's looting and burning everywhere he turns; far more sheltered than Andrey, Pierre is now forced to confront the violent destruction of the comfortable if frustrating bubble he had resided in for such a long time. His growth is from the somewhat feckless aristocrat who wanders around a battlefield in dress whites to a dirty, shabby prisoner of war discovering his part in the universe with a mystical awakening which transforms his life.

Meanwhile, Andrey hovers at death's door, but Bondarchuk doesn't represent his slow decline as effectively as Tolstoy. The fading of Andrey is one of the most powerful passages in the book. Its descriptions are relatively simple yet very evocative of the helpless sense people experience as they watch their loved ones slip from one world into the other. Indeed, Bondarchuk leaves us uncertain as to when or whether Andrey has even passed away. To be fair, this and other criticisms of the movie may be misguided: I understand that the version now circulating is actually incomplete and the full version (an hour or two longer) may be lost to posterity.

Perhaps Bondarchuk does not dwell on Andrey's death because he wanted to keep the focus on Pierre. Part Four is more chaotic than the others which, again, may be as appropriate a reflection of its primary character as the coldness of Part One and the romanticism of Part Two. Pierre is at a loss to understand himself and his surroundings until the final ecstasy when he conceives himself as a part of everything and everything as a part of him. It's hard to convey such ideas cinematically but Bondarchuk makes a go of it. Though I didn't find Bondarchuk's stylistic flourishes in this chapter to be as effective as the lyricism of Natalya's story or the relentless drive of "1812," the director is to commended for his ambitious style. He was not intimidated by his source, and indeed rose to meet it on its own terms, with a bravura adventurism that is winning.

AND IN THE END...

I would have liked to see War and Peace's coda reflect that of the book: eight years after 1812, we gather with the characters, all a little older and more comfortable as Russia settles into its post-Napoleonic epoch. Indeed, much of the book is a kind of allegory for Russia's self-discovery and embrace of its own identity - a rise in nationalism that took place (not just in Russia) against the background of Romantics sweeping away the dry cobwebs of the Age of Reason. Pierre and Natalya, especially, are the arbiters of change: Pierre with his rejection of aristocratic remove for a life closer to the Russian soil (reflecting Tolstoy's own eventual conversion) and Natalya as the embodiment of a free Russian spirit, nearly corrupted by French-leaning decadence but ultimately redeemed by her union with Pierre.

This idea is raised during Natalya's folk dance, during which the narrator admiringly asks how this girl, raised by a French governess, learned to dance like a Russian peasant. Note that when Natalya is wooed by the superficial Anatole, most of the dialogue is spoken in French. Further, the cinematography and set design take on a claustrophobic ultra-French air of haughty, sophisticated decadence. (Often in this movie the most pretentious characters speak French.) Between Napoleon and the French leanings of the ineffective aristocracy, a nationalist message is brewing. It is made explicit in the movie's opening and closing lines. The narrator proclaims that good people must gather together to effect positive change. (In the book this is roughly the credo of Pierre's ultimately rejected Freemasonry.) Tolstoy, on the other hand, closes with these words as he compares history to gravity: "In the present case it is no less essential to get away from a false sensation of freedom and accept a dependence that we cannot feel." Not quite as stirring.

The novel, before it ends with a long advocacy of historical determinism, takes one last look at its characters. It catches them in a moment, one of many before and after, but the casualness of the portrait is what makes it so effective. It's 1820 and at a family gathering, Pierre, the Rostovs, and Andrey's sister Marya (who wed Natalya's brother) argue, play with their children, talk, relax. Life has gone on; it did not end in some rousing climax of 1812 but continued, winding along its way with no end in sight. This sense of life captured in the process of unfolding, but without beginning or conclusion, probably does more than explicit argument to convey Tolstoy's mysterious sense of an ever-flowing stream of life, on which we bob and weave, half-conscious of our lack of control.

As for the movie, I found it had its ups and downs but was often captivating and, like the book, thrilling in its uneven structure. The fact that it is not smooth and comprehensible or easily definable gives it a kind of unwieldy granduer. Bondarchuk's attempts at organization are appreciated but thankfully they don't go too far, because to tame Tolstoy's expansive spirit would be a mistake. To close with a formulation borrowed from the late critic Manny Farber, there are times when it seems War and Peace is white-elephant art, pompous, overstuffed, too focused on the big picture. But it is stocked with so many fine moments and asides, replete with great details, and pushed along by so many experiments (some more successful than others) that it eventually bears its own weight.

Several days after sitting in a theater for seven hours, I feel the urge to see it again. Judging the film on its own merits, I'd say that's a pretty good sign.

4 comments:

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Have you seen King Vidor's 1956 version? Vidor was a natural storyteller quite comfortable with the epic form. By comparison, the Bondarchuk version seems to me bloated, plodding, and often - as you suggest - incomprehensible.

And Bondarchuk's Natasha is no Audrey Hepburn.

MovieMan0283 said...

I didn't find Bondarchuk's Natasha all that appealing at first, but she grew on me as the film progressed - and is probably more authentically Russian than Hepburn (who is my favorite actress).

I am looking forward to the Vidor version now that I've read the book and seen this one. I thought it had its ups and downs, but appreciate it overall - especially the battle scenes and the most of the Natasha sequence.

Did you ever see the Anthony Hopkins BBC (I think) version? Supposedly that's pretty good though I see Hopkins more as an Andrey than a Pierre - in personality, if not in looks. Still, I'll bet he could pull it off.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Haven't seen Hopkins' Pierre, but have no doubt he could pull it off.

A lot of people criticized Henry Fonda's Pierre in the Vidor version saying he was physically miscast, too American, etc. Not me - I think he was swell in the part. Really like the way his character develops over the 3 1/2 hour running time generally and in relation to Hepburn's Natasha as she convincingly grows from girl to woman. As far as I'm concerned, no one played an Everyman better than Fonda, and no filmmaker told Everyman stories better than Vidor. The Nino Rota score doesn't hurt either.

MovieMan0283 said...

"The Nino Rota score doesn't hurt either."

It never does...