Lust at the Lake
Review by Ken Burke
The Seagull (Michael Mayer)
“Executive Summary” (no spoilers): Based on the well-known-play by Anton Chekhov (1896), this film encourages us to spend some confining-psychological-time in an open-air-country-environment where a famous actress, other members of her family, along with ever-present-estate-caretakers and neighbors give us insightful lessons on the unfortunate failures of human opportunity as various romantic attractions result in bitter conflict, the role of art as comfortably-acclaimed vs. antagonizingly-expressive becomes an aspect of the problems some of these characters face in defining what life should mean to those who best command it, and ultimately hardly anyone in this ongoing-study of interpersonal-failings finds much relief in their existence despite the material success some enjoy, others long for. Given how the original work this film was adapted from has been constantly in the public view in one form or another for over a century there’s not much that should be considered a spoiler in my comments but for the benefit of those (like me) who wouldn’t enter into a screening with a full awareness of the plot, I’ll not only conclude this summary but will also abide by my usual multi-hued-warning-system to help steer you away from unwanted-revelations you’d like to avoid in the more detailed explorations below.
Here’s the trailer: (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)
If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this:
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.
What Happens: We start in 1904 Moscow where famous-but-aging-actress Irina Arkadina (Annette Bening*) finishes another triumphant performance but is told backstage by her somewhat-younger-lover (and prominent-short-story-author) Boris Trigorin (Corey Stoll) something important has happened, so quickly we’re at the family summer home in the woods run by her brother, Sorin (Brian Dennehy), a retired government worker. Sorin seems ill at first but is healthy when this oddly-presented-narrative settles back into what we'll later surmise are actual 1904 events; however it takes (at least for me) until near the film’s end to clarify what's in this early scene, including the strained relationship of Boris and Konstantin (Billy Howle), Irina’s son—emphasized by Konstantin having just had his own story published but Boris hasn’t taken time to read it yet—is actually a flashforward to 1906, events which will be repeated for us near the end of the film, although it took me and my friends some discussion after the screening to sort all of this out. (If you care to skim or carefully read the entire Chekhov play script, from which this adaptation evolves, be my guest, although you won’t find any of what I’ve just described above.) Once we’re clearly in 1904 we find we're watching the farm-owning-Arkadina-family, their farm-managing-Shamrayev-family, and a few crucial neighbors all spending much of the plot in various interactions within this location, as unrequited love along with raging egos constantly leads to ever-evolving-conflicts. Irina is well-aware of her celebrity status with little interest most of the time in anyone else’s problems; Konstantin sees the art of his mother and her paramour as meaningless-bourgeoisie-twaddle, with his intention of being some sort of enlightened-radical-author/playwright (although Boris dismisses such work as empty Symbolism; if you wish to go beyond this useful overview of that multi-arts-movement I’d recommend this vastly-detailed-site) with the intention of his theatrical experiments to star local ingénue Nina Zarechnaya (Saoirse Ronan), his own star-struck-lover (unhappy with her father who’s now so focused on her stepmother Nina will inherit nothing upon his death). In Konstantin’s despair over the general disinterest in his play and the emerging attention of Nina to Boris he attempts to commit suicide but only grazes his skull with a rifle, recovering easily enough.
*Interestingly, Bening's early career at San Francisco’s American Conservatory Theatre included the role of Irina, when she was decades younger than the appropriate age she now has in Mayer’s film.
Other disgruntled members of this extended-household include estate manager Ilya Shamrayev (Glenn Fleshler), who regularly bickers with Irina about operations of the farm; his wife, Polina (Mare Winningham), who’d easily leave her marriage for local doctor Yevgeny Dorn (Jon Tenney), a man who gives her some encouragement but longs for his long-ago-affair with Irina; their daughter, Masha (Elisabeth Moss), a morbid soul (smokes, slips vodka into her breakfast coffee, snorts snuff) always dressed in black, secretly hungering for Konstantin, even though she could easily have a relationship with poorly-paid (and always ready to tell you about it) schoolteacher Semyon Medvedenko (Michael Zegen). With all this ever-ready-tension available to send one character or another into yet-another-tailspin we'll find: Konstantin furious at Irina for chattering during the premiere of his diatribe-infused-play (presented under moonlight out in the woods) but also taking out his wrath on Nina (whom he later oddly accuses of hating him), leading to the central symbolism of the story when he kills a seagull, then lays it at her feet as evidence of how distraught he is; Nina attracted to Boris (leading to Irina’s jealously when he reciprocates, so ultimately they head back to Moscow but with Boris encouraging Nina to find him there on her quest to become another famous actress); nothing much coming of any uplift for Ilya, Polina, or Sorin, although Masha decides to rid herself of her passion for Konstantin by marrying Medvedenko. ⇒Once we’re clear later we’re truly in 1906 (with direct repeats from the beginning scenes of various minor events) we see Sorin’s truly ill, Masha and hubby have a child but little’s right in their world, Konstantin tells us Nina had a baby with Boris but when it died he went back to Irina as Nina’s acting career stalled (largely due to limited talent). In a very tragic interchange, Nina comes through the woods to Konstantin’s room, tells him of her misery, admits she’s still in love with Boris, then compares herself to that dead seagull as the embodiment of a life without purpose. When she runs away again, Konstantin sets up for another suicide but this time with the rifle in his mouth. We hear the shot (but don’t see anything, as if it’s happening offstage), but Dr. Dorn says it’s just a little bottle of ether exploding in his medicine bag. He goes out to check on this, comes back to verify it, but as the image of Irina’s worried face fades out we know what she also knows.⇐ (Yet, if these human-foible-events don't draw you in all that much you might be fascinated by the cinematography throughout this film, having been almost entirely shot in glorious hues of natural light, even those dim-candlelit-scenes.)
So What? What’s ironic for me about seeing this cinematic adaptation of Chekov’s famed play is the original stage work was largely rejected in its own era (written 1895, first performed 1896) because it’s Naturalistic approach (a movement in several of the arts championed by French novelist/literary theorist Émile Zola, influenced by Charles Darwin’s studies on heredity and social environment) tried to emulate how real people—rather than melodramatic, romanticized theatrical characters—thought, talked, and lived their lives (often in foolish or dysfunctional manners), until such stylistics (done as well during this period in Sweden by August Strindberg [Miss Julie, written 1888, first performed 1906], in Norway by Henrik Ibsen [A Doll’s House, written and first performed, 1879], then carried forward through much of the 20th century in the U.S.A. by such masters of authentic human tragedy as Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, David Mamet) were standardized in Russia by Konstantin Stanislavsky (whose direction and performance as Boris in a December 1898 staging of The Seagull at the Moscow Art Theatre brought both critical and audience embrace), taught to generations of American actors as either the original “system” or Method acting by disciples such as Maria Ouspenskaya, Stella Adler, Joshua Logan, Lee Strasberg. Yet, here I am, a great admirer of such Naturalistic approaches to theatre, painting, literature, and cinema largely unmoved by this version of The Seagull (although my theatre-savvy-wife, Nina, says we saw, enjoyed a live production of it some time back, although I have no memory of such—I won’t even begin to tell you other things we’ve shared that I don’t recall [to borrow a line from Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ convenient memory-loss during Congressional hearings about his involvement in the 2016 Trump Presidential campaign, although as a true-Trumper—if that’s still really the case—he’ll probably charge me royalties for use of the phrase]; in my defense, she’s misplaced a couple of recollections as well), feeling somewhat like those very-late-19th-century-audiences, but only because I found little to invest in these characters and their ego-driven-actions although I’m sure that’s what Chekov was intending to explore in a relatively subtle approach to art.
A couple of my regular viewing companions weren’t all that impressed either (Nina was, but dysfunctional situations are something she’s attuned to; let’s just leave it at that so her parents don't come back to haunt us—or maybe she’s just glad to finally find a major film character who shares her name), feeling the actions/reactions of the people in these situations to be dated, too remote from our present flow of human interactions. I’m not so concerned about that line of criticism because to me a play can still be impactful even if it’s set in late Medieval or fully-manifested Renaissance times (William Shakespeare’s Hamlet [written about 1600, first performed around 1607] and Richard III [written about 1593, first performed 1633], although both of those have also had success being transposed to a variety of more contemporary settings) or is as retrograde in its content as something set in the mid-20th-century (Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire ) or even later toward what's become our new millennium (Tony Kushner’s 2-part Angels in America [1990-‘92]) because all of these famous plays continue to resonate with their timeless explorations of the greed, desperation for power, inherent hostility, social rejection of the displaced, even if the events in these narratives are grounded in eras and cultures removed from our own. So, what’s my problem with The Seagull, as it could easily be described in similar terms to the plays cited above?
Maybe it’s just this particular “staging” of it that left me a bit flat (as I truly don’t remember seeing it as a play, I consulted a summary of the original version but found nothing of consequence missing even though this runs a brisk 99 minutes so I’m sure some pruning was done to the original script), although the acting can’t be faulted nor does the “opening up” to many scenes of the country home’s wooded and lake surroundings seem to have taken this story in distracting directions (however, the scene where Boris rows Nina around the lake does become a bit jarring in its use of intense closeups that often lose focus as one character leans toward the other [as well as the screen and us], as does the inexplicable repeat of some of the events set in 1906 ⇒[not including Konstantin’s successful suicide]⇐ when the chronology actually reaches that point, although we’ve seen all this before, confusingly connected to an opening graphic noting a 1904 placement, with no clarity of most of the rest of the film occurring in either flashback or proper continuity to that announced earlier date). I just think the characters are too easily dismissed, largely in self-absorption, so that what was shockingly-familiar to Chekhov’s audience has just become all-too-familiar in our era. In the press notes, Mayer cites Anatoly Koni, a contemporary critic from Chekhov’s time, who said of the play, “It is life on stage, with all its tragic alliances, eloquent thoughtlessness and silent sufferings.” Maybe others who’ll see this adaptation of The Seagull will feel the same way as Koni, but regarding Mayer's revival of Chekhov’s work I’d have to be counted among those whom he says see this presentation of “the sort of everyday life that is accessible to everyone and understood in its cruel internal irony by almost no one.” I accept Konstantin’s sorrowful death as a human tragedy just as I acknowledge all the unrequited love on display here (which seems all too familiar to situations I do recall, until fate fortunately led me to Nina some 31 years ago), but, honestly, I just didn’t care what happened to all of them all that much. Chekhov calls this a comedy (of human errors, I guess), although you’ll find the laughs few and far between.
Bottom Line Final Comments: I’m not alone in my blasé response to this rendition of The Seagull (which pushes my curiosity to find earlier cinematic adaptations* or another version on stage to see if there’s a way Mayer could have constructed this rendition that would have engaged me more fervently) as the critical responses at Rotten Tomatoes only reached the level of 72% positive reviews while those surveyed by Metacritic were notably-less-convinced of high quality here, yielding an average score of 59% (which, in academia, would round up to a D- at best). Audience response has been limited as well so far with a mere $516 thousand for ticket sales in domestic (U.S.-Canada) theaters after a month in release, but you couldn’t expect much more given The Seagull’s playing in only 52 venues, just 29 until last weekend, so if this is to be remembered at all it’ll likely have to be in some form of video. As you might know if you’ve previously perused any of my Two Guys in the Dark reviews, I like to conclude each one with a Musical Metaphor that allows one final approach toward commentary on the cinematic subject but from the perspective of the marvelously-engaging-aural-arts so let’s move on to that aspect of this exploration in hopes of finding something a bit more impactful than Mayer's sincere-but-distancing-theatrical-adaptation.
*I’ve found reference to a few other attempts to bring this Chekhov story to the big screen including Sidney Lumet’s The Sea Gull (1968) as well as a plot-recasting into 1980s rural New England with Days and Nights (Christian Camargo, 2014), but both were critically panned, the latter earning a 0% RT score. From a brief skimming what looks a bit more interesting to me is a 1 hr. 58 min. video version (John J. Desmond, 1975) from the Williamstown (MA) Theatre (with early scenes all shot outdoors) starring Lee Grant, Blythe Danner, Frank Langella, Olympia Dukakis, among others.
In this case I’ve decided to link one original theatrical story to another by choosing my Metaphor song, “What I Did for Love,” from A Chorus Line (music by Marvin Hamlisch, lyrics by Edward Kieban, book by James Kirkwood Jr. and Nicholas Dante; play opened on Broadway in 1975 with a film adaptation in 1985 directed by Richard Attenborough which [unlike the Broadway original that won 9 Tony awards plus the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, for a time held the record for longest-running show on the Great White Way until Cats—opened on Broadway in 1982 with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics and book adapted from T.S. Eliot’s poems in 1939’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats—topped it in 1997] was a box-office-bomb, taking in only $14 million against its $25 million production budget [which itself is a bargain by today's inflated standards) at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inQG6JOdHKQ (from season 2, episode 1, “Audition,” of Fox TV’s Glee [2009-2015]**) as Rachel (Lea Michele) expresses deep regret over her selfish actions.
**I’d hoped to find a clip from a Broadway production of A Chorus Line but came up with nothing suitable to watch, although in keeping with the intertexuality of plays here I will offer you this version of the song done in honor of the earlier work by the more-recently-celebrated cast from Hamilton.
My interest in “What I Did for Love” admittedly comes as a bit of a metaphorical-stretch because while the song’s original context is about performers who gave their all for the theatre even though their compromised-careers couldn’t ultimately support their ambitions (“Kiss today goodbye, The sweetness and the sorrow […] The gift was ours to borrow It’s as if we always knew, And I won’t forget what I did for love”) I’m using it more like it was adapted in context for the Glee scene above, to actually “regret what I did for love” (in Rachel’s case, undermining a potential competitor) so that when she “won’t forget what I did” it’s because of the shame she feels in her betrayal of a fellow student, just as I sense a full round of regrets from most of The Seagull’s characters in the means by which they traded away various gifts such as family nurturing, relationship commitments, personal growth, self-acceptance, all for the “love” of fame, material comfort, lust, recognition by the elite, so even though they collectively probably felt “We did what we had to do [… they] won’t forget what [they foolishly] did for love,” even as what they yearned for proved to be so unfulfilling, despite the public acclaim enjoyed by Irina and Boris, with Nina and Konstantin “Kiss[ing] today goodbye” in a most miserable manner, with him “winning” the heartbreak-sweepstakes by default.
In closing out this posting, I’ll note something completely unrelated to The Seagull (except how certain snobs are verbally-defecating on the new Han Solo story, leaving it splattered with their droppings) by noting that Solo: A Star Wars Story (Ron Howard; review in our May 31, 2018 posting) continues to underperform based on fanbase-expectations, having now accumulated $264.4 million worldwide after 2 weeks in release which may just match the production budget (but needs to roughly double that amount to cover distribution/marketing costs before profits would emerge). You can find more discussion about why Solo … is the only movie with less-than-anticipated-results from the Star Wars franchise by exploring this article, along with why this lone setback doesn’t portend any “great disturbance in the Force” of this decades-long-cultural-phenomenon, likely causing little consternation at the Disney home office given their also-ownership of Marvel continues to show results with Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony and Joe Russo; review in our May 3, 2018 posting), closing in on $2 billion global gross even as it’s been in release for just 6 weeks. As a further indication of how relative cinematic success can be, though, the lowly (but lively) RBG (Betty West, Julie Cohen; review in our May 17, 2018 posting), a documentary about Supreme Court Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, has grossed a mere $7.8 million domestically but that still makes it Magnolia Pictures’ best-box-office-winner yet, a decent result given it’s playing in only 432 theaters whereas Solo …’s available in 4,381 domestic locations plus very many more worldwide.
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Here’s more information about The Seagull:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZJkZmXtUYh4&list=PLongQH5LgKfYGe0EraKk0DwZ-EwcE3o5J (22:43 interview with director Michael Mayer and actor Annette Bening [sound’s a bit lower than desirable but still audible])
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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken
P.S. Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker. But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
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