THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG (Iosif Kheifits, 1960)

The following is one of the entries from my 100 Greatest Films from the Soviet Union, Russia, Ukraine and Eastern Europe list, which I invite you to visit on this site if you haven’t already done so. — Dennis

Based on Anton Chekhov’s 1899 story (as in part is Nikita Mikhalkov’s lumbering, inflated Dark Eyes, 1987), Dama s sobachkoy, by Iosif Kheifits, is an exquisitely wrought gem. With ravishingly lovely black-and-white cinematography (by Andrei Moskvin and Dmitri Meskhiyev), especially at Yalta, this film traces the meeting and the beginning, and possibly the end, of a love affair between two individuals, on holiday away from spouses, at a seaside resort and back home. Dmitri’s marriage was arranged; Anna’s, to a government official, is likewise conventional. Even their adultery is oddly straightjacketed by society’s strictures, affording them little pleasure, only an anticipation of pleasure.
     Kheifits has beautifully paced the film to express its Chekhovian stillness, its vertical sense of time. (I kept thinking of Emily Dickinson’s marvelous line, “It will be summer—eventually.”) Slow, gracious walks, with a pause to note the strange light on the water, contribute to an elongated poise. Each unfolding moment is crystallized by the downward pressure upon it of eternity.
     The whole atmosphere, then, suggests that happiness is not in the cards for these two. On the other hand, there is nothing defeatist in their seizure of romantic opportunity, their making out of life’s small opportunities whatever they can. They are the light upon the water.
     There is one problematic detail: the dog—a nasty little thing. Its pampering, of course, reveals Anna’s emptiness and loneliness. But providing an even greater index of her emotional predicament is that Anna holds on for some sort of balance to even so unpleasant a creature. The animal perhaps is a projection of how unworthy of love she feels herself to be because of the small amount of happiness with which she is supposed to make herself content.
     Aleksei Batalov is piercing as Dmitri.

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