Every so often, some company will release a “big screen event” into theaters, bringing a play or, more often, an opera, to the big screen for “one night only.” However, rarely, if ever, do these films give the viewer a viscerally affecting look into the creative process, while also being a true work of art both stage and screen, quite like Louis Malle’s 1994 masterwork, and ultimately his final work, VANYA ON 42nd STREET.
The re-teaming and spiritual cousin of Malle’s previous film with the pair of actor Wallace Shawn and stage director Andre Gregory (MY DINNER WITH ANDRE), VANYA finds Gregory teaming with a group of actors to practice and work through a new translation of the beloved Chekov play, Uncle Vanya. This translation, by the man known to the world as David Mamet, was never performed, nor was it ever meant to be performed in front of an audience. Simply existing as a practice piece for this oddly huge collection of actors to hammer their way through creatively, Malle gets a fly-on-the-wall type look into a group of artists not only working on their craft, but the very invention of a piece of art. And it’s as enthralling as anything you’ll find on the stage or on the screen.
Structurally, the film is a rarity. Featuring only a handful of long, drawn out takes, the film is inherently the cinematic equivalent of watching a play, photographed. Malle doesn’t take much visual leeway, this feeling more like DINNER or his documentaries on India, than anything even remotely resembling a film like BLACK MOON or lord forbid the skittles induced seizure of a film that is ZAZIE DANS LE METRO (all brilliant films in their own right, I must add). Instead, he allows these actors the breathing room to truly work their way through this piece and all its machinations, without feeling stilted by the camera in any way.
The cast here is also breathtakingly top notch. Vanya is played by Wallace Shawn, who is not only brilliant here, but is joined by the equally fantastic Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, George Gaynes, Lynn Cohen and even Oren Moverman, who has become a well regarded writer and filmmaker with such indie gems as RAMPART and THE MESSENGER. However, it’s Brooke Smith (best known for her run on Grey’s Anatomy), who steals the show here as Sonya, giving the role such a palpable sense of longing and a true beauty that is just captivating. They all get their shot to take on their respective roles, and with Gregory allowing each person the space to do with their said character just what they feel, it’s truly like watching a fleeting creative moment. It’s the cinematic equivalent of that one brief moment of brilliance any artist has, and we are able to be privy to that moment any time we want with this masterfully done Blu-ray from Criterion.
As a release, this is one that is both great, but also missing a certain something. Yes, there isn’t much else to be said about Louis Malle, that Criterion hasn’t already said in the release of the fifty billion other Malle films that Criterion has given us. However, with only an engaging but far too brief documentary, the film’s re-watchability doesn’t seem all that high. Yes, the film is utterly brilliant in every single way, but it’s not one for everyone. It’s not quite as intellectually introspective as something like DINNER, but it does give that meditative touch to a wholly different subject – art. Toss in a great transfer, one that looks quite clean without doing away with that earth toned haze found imminently in many of the films from the early-to-mid ‘90s, and you have a film that is now able to finally be seen, just as these artists had originally hoped it would have.
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