THE GAMBLER (Károly Makk, 1997)

Sixty years after winning two consecutive best actress Oscars (as Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld and O-Lan in The Good Earth), and more than fifty years after retiring following a subsequent string of flops, Luise Rainer takes center-screen in The Gambler (A Játékos), giving a fabulous performance. Rainer, looking ancient except for those signature (and still rolling!) eyes of hers, plays an elegant, infirm nineteenth-century Russian woman who, visiting relations, belatedly discovers the feverish excitement of roulette. Her ten or so minutes on-screen are so thrilling and moving one might overlook just how good a film The Gambler altogether is. Rainer’s brilliance, full of full-bodied bravura and quicksilver responses, invigorates the piece clear to the heavens, but what remains steadfastly on earth is of interest, too.

This joint production from the United Kingdom and Hungary (which is in English) was written by people whose names are unfamiliar to me—Katherine Ogden, Charles Ogden and Nick Dear—and directed by Hungary’s Károly Makk, whose Love (Szerelem, 1971) stars Lili Darvas in a phenomenal bedridden performance, and whose Cat’s Play (Macskajáték, 1972), his finest piece, is an intricate mosaic of present tense and memories. The Gambler also shifts back and forth between two modes of existence, but in this case they are not past and present. Rather, they are a fictional realm and an historical realm—although one should be forewarned that poetic license is generously applied to the “real life” aspects of the film’s action.

The protagonist is Fiodor Mikhailovich Dostoievski (Michael Gambon, too old, but excellent), the Russian author (not yet) of The Idiot and Crime and Punishment. It is the mid-1860s. His wife having died a year or two earlier, his poverty like flypaper, and constantly under the threat of a fresh epileptic seizure, Fiodor is a middle-aged man in a deep funk. Now, because of a contract he signed a year ago with an exploitive publisher who dangled the enticement of clearing his debts, Fiodor must complete a novel and turn it over in 27 days; otherwise, the publisher will own whatever Fiodor writes for the rest of his life. Fiodor therefore hires a stenographer, 20-year-old Anna Grigorievna Snitkina (Jodhi May, the former child actress who won at Cannes for her performance in the 1988 A World Apart—here, accomplished and fine), a devout Christian like her employer, and a bit of a pest with her addiction to happy endings. (“I don’t know what sort of books you are in the habit of reading,” Dostoievski counters, “but I write about life!”) Anna helps Fiodor meet his contractual obligation—Roulettenberg becomes the novella we know as The Gambler—and becomes his second wife, although a quarter-century his junior. The film’s gorgeous prologue, in deep slow motion, is set years hence, as the widowed Anna visits alone Roulettenberg, the past of her husband’s imagination. This opening doesn’t quite haunt everything that follows, as it was meant to do.

Makk’s method shifts back and forth between Dostoievski’s writing the book (and sparring with Anna, and seducing Anna) and a visual rendering of the scenes he is writing. The boy in the story, Alexei (Dominic West, dashing and impetuous), is as addicted to gambling as was his creator, and he is “deeply” in love. But has he a prayer of winning his Polina?

At each point of shift, we lose our bearings for a fraction of a second, and we are delighted each time by the readjustment our mind must make. But there comes an explosive moment that blows us away, when one of the shifts turns back on itself and the character in one of the film’s two modes of action walks deliciously into the film’s other mode of action. Even thus apprised, you won’t see the moment coming and you will be just as surprised as I was.

At one point, Fiodor shouts back at Anna that he is merely inventing his story; at another point, he counters some other remark she has made by insisting he is drawing from reality—and, quick as a whip, Anna points up the contradiction. The film, then, discerns, in the course of someone creating a work of fiction, where reality, recollection and experience penetrate the imagination, and vice versa. This is not a lofty aim; it is superficial, to be sure, but fun.

And Rainer’s contribution to The Gambler is more than that.


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