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Tuesday, 13 December 2011


There may be spoilers in the sonata below ~ watch before reading!
The Kreutzer Sonata is directed by Bernard Rose, the brilliant British director of such films as Candyman, Mr Nice and Ivans XTC. The film is based on a Tolstoy novella; part of a trilogy of Tolstoy tales by the director and stars Danny Huston (son of the better known John Huston - actor and one of the world's greatest directors of films including The Maltese Falcon, Moby Dick and The African Queen) and Elisabeth Röhm (daughter of the rather less well known Eberhard Röhm, the corporate attorney and writer Lisa Loverde who Elizabeth herself described as : "A bonafide ‘hippie chick’, not a day went by when I didn’t receive 10 emails from my mother regarding causes that I should rally behind and stand for").

The background to the movie: In 1888, Tolstoy (you know - the writer chap), Repin (no idea either, oh hang on - artist chap) and Andreyev-Burlak (haven't a clue - ok, actor!) listen to a performance of Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata (aka Sonata No.9) in A Major for piano and violin, and decide they should all create some work of art based around it. Tolstoy came up with the novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The other two sobered up and didn't do anything. Tolstoy's novella scandalised civilised society and was banned for a bit. The other two felt bad.

The story has been filmed more times than a violin player plucks his instrument, but this version updates the story to a modern setting, so instead of our main protagonist checking his wife's written-in-ink love letters, he checks her mobile phone. Instead of feeling sexy in an oak-carved double bed in a house in the country, he gets it on with himself on a motel bed watching rough internet porn. Although, thankfully, we see very little action here beyond a flash of the film he is watching and the unbuckling of his belt. Yes, this is still Tolstoy, I swear it!

That's enough historical background, now, on to the film.

Big jealousy from Huston's world-weary and green-eyed character Edgar towards his dishy wife Abigail and a young hot musician chap called Aiden results in one slightly overlong meditation on being faithful and 'what to do' when temptation rears its ugly head. Or not so ugly head, as tempter (Aiden - the hot violin player) and equal temptee (Abigail - the hot piano player with a husband and family who hasn't, err, tickled the ivories in ages) are both insanely pretty. More so than old grump Edgar anyway!

It all ends in horror for one of the key players in this possible love (or sex, rather) triangle - after lots and lots of talk, contemplation and doing of rude things on the floor and on top of kitchen tables. Probably then, seeing as this film is obviously from the start going to end in something pretty bad happening to one or maybe all of this lot - the film becomes (like Tolstoy intended) more a 'what not to do' guide to times when temptation rears its ugly head; a cautionary tale, rather than a 'what to do'. Except for all the sex on the floor and on kitchen tables with your husband bit, which is permitted by Tolstoy. Just don't do it with someone else you fancy as well... or let the person you 'might do it with' leave messages on your phone to discuss it further. Hubby always reads those kind of texts you know!

The naughtiness quota in this movie is high, but it had to be - it kind of made the film less 'navel-gazing' and more 'sweaty limbs indulging in sexual intercourse-gazing' every so often; which kind of wakes you up for more contemplation to come - breaks up all that endless talking and fretting and checking up on his wife by Danny Huston's character Edgar. Because, to its cost, The Kreutzer Sonata is a movie featuring too much pacing of corridors by an older man worried about his younger - and frankly far more attractive than he is - wife, and what she gets up to on music practice nights. Or what she doesn't get up to. You have to wait until the end to find out. But with a husband like Edgar - I wouldn't blame her. The ending is worth the wait. Tense and unsettling; upsetting too. 

You'll either love The Kreutzer Sonata's stark, explicit and often uncomfortable honesty - or hate its long, talky, body-party, classical music-scored pretentiousness (kind of the direction this review is going in!). I guess it depends on what mood you are in when you watch it. That could - could - be the sign of a really great movie. I could also say that at least the film is never boring. But sometimes it is. The 'not boring' bits make this a movie that deserves some acclaim - and in its confrontational approach, should hold your interest. Even the boring bits have a purpose; to reflect the boredom of being alone and wondering what someone else is doing with someone you love; somewhere else. Do not watch this movie if you are the jealous type - it could prove fatal.  

Röhm is brilliant as Abigail: frustrated, relaxed, gorgeous, sexy, tempting, angry, mundane, inspiring, bored - much like any real person in real life on any one day, depending on how they feel when they wake up, or when they get ready for bed. Or even just how many cups of coffee or glasses of wine they've had. Actually I was going to include 'plain' in that list of words to describe Abigail. But I had to delete it. She's a lot of things, but not plain (only her life, at times) even when she wants to be - which Edgar himself alludes to in the film and worries him the most (calm down dear - she's only going to travel the world alone to get a 'sense of perspective'). Abigail has that air of attraction pulsing through her, around her, all the time. Maybe without knowing it. Or maybe fully aware of it. Even Edgar doesn't quite know - but that air of mystery is the most dangerous appeal of Abigail of all.

Huston as the suspicious and slightly annoying Edgar carries off the 'lucky old me living here with a girl like that, but for how much longer?' look with lightly-wrinkled relish, and looks like he's been here before - in this dark, deep, green-eyed pit of jealousy; maybe once stabbed (metaphorically - don't panic!) in the back by a girl needing more than the odd bonk on the sofa while she is trying to talk to her agent on the phone; such are the pleasures that Edgar inflicts on Abigail in the film (in an especially erotic moment that ends in panic of pregnancy, not a post-coital cigarette). If he hasn't been to that place before, then Danny Huston's an even better actor than I thought. And I already think he's really good!

Severer spoiler paragraph follows . . avoid as necessary!

Thankfully, after an hour and a half of sex and babies and jealousy and concertos, not to mention uncomfortable - to men, mostly, I'm guessing - checking of your partner's mobile phone to check all 'is well' (enough already Edgar!), it all ends in Candyman-esque spurts of blood. Hooray! But I won't tell you whose.

Carry on reading . .      
Candyman (1992) was one of the most elegiac, poetic visions of urban horror ever seen in the movies. The film probably outclassed the novella it was based on. And that's from a committed Clive Barker fan. But The Kreutzner Sonata thinks it's cleverer than it probably is. Jealousy is a fact of the human condition. Without it we die with nothing to fight for. But too much analysing kind of spoils the beauty of the human condition. This is a film you probably should see, as it may mean something to you, it may cause you to think 'oh yeah - I know that feeling' and cause a sense of inner dread and hysteria within you - and it does that very well. But to be honest, I get that same feeling every time I watch an episode of Fawlty Towers too.

words: mark gordon palmer

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