Page 1 of 3
Criterion gives some high-def love to Louis Malle's final film - one starring Julianne Moore and Wallace Shawn, among others - but is it worth the Blu-ray investment....?
Criterion / 121 Minutes / 1994 / Rated PG / Street Date: February 28, 2012
Louis Malle's cinema contains some of the more complex and challengingly metafilmic concepts the silver screen got in the latter half of the twentieth century. The futuristic bleakness of Black Moon, the melancholy personal history of Au revoir les enfants, the ebullient juvenilia of Zazie dans le metro - in retrospect, Malle's output doesn't seem so much indicative of its time, but somehow perfectly outside of it, the visions of an artist using realism as a method of bringing far-reaching and often blisteringly heady ideas to life alongside his emotionally authentic story arcs.
Vanya on 42nd Street, Malle's last film, is no exception. Both a crystalline capturing of Andre Gregory's early 1990s stagings of Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov and a multi-tiered investigation of the performers and participants who populated them, this serene love letter of a movie is both endearing in its dramatic prowess and far more intellectually stimulating than it has any right to be.
I can sense the eye-rolling as I drone on about the cryptic treats that lie within Chekhov's prose as delivered by the likes of Julianne Moore, Wallace Shawn, and Andre Gregory, but it's true: Something is happening within the crumbling walls of Vanya on 42nd Street. I don't know whether Malle is pontificating on the death of theatre, or how Chekhov can be reinterpreted and repackaged to continue to have relevance within a narrative-hungry culture, but the way this film unfolds, it gives the impression that every shot, every captured moment is absolutely deliberate and completely in keeping with its nebulous but nevertheless recognizable theses.
But there's the movie's big asterisk: It plays like a Ph.D dissertation. Vanya on 42nd Street in critical discussion and dramatic hindsight is densely populated with fascinating acting choices and distinct cinematographic flair, but the act of actually watching the thing has a certain chore-like rigor to it. There is a candy center to the film that is endlessly diverting to discuss and analyze afterward, but to get to it, one has to penetrate many levels of film rhetoric and often lofty aesthetic conceits, which is an act that can be as ingeniously frustrating as it is conceptually rewarding.