(Canada, 112 min.)
Dir. Raphaël Ouellet, Writ. Celeste Parr
“Time goes fast, and yet it is so dull here!” she said, not looking at him.-The Lady with the Dog, Anton Chekhov
Anna, the lady with the dog, is bored. She’s the title character in Chekhov’s short story “The Lady with the Dog,” and also the title character in Raphaël Ouellet’s new literary drama Gurov and Anna. The titular Gurov and Anna are the couple having an affair in both Chekhov and Ouellet’s works, but where literature and film converge, literature and life take divergent paths. Anna, whose real name is Mercedes in Gurov and Anna, only bears a slight resemblance to her Chekhovian counterpart. Played by an excellent Sophie Desmarais (Sarah Prefers to Run), Mercedes evokes the lady with the dog as she reminds Ben (Andreas Apergis), the film’s Gurov, of his favourite literary lady with her expression, her gait, her dress, and that little beret that makes Chekhov’s lonely muse a seductress. Bookworms shall swoon for Gurov and Anna.
There’s a striking difference between Anna and Mercedes, though, which Ben fails to notice. Mercedes isn’t married and experienced: she’s a young student, naïve and eager to learn. Ben’s a regular Gurov, though, for his hair is going grey even though he’s only forty-ish and his marriage shows a future even less promising than his receding hairlines does. It’s no wonder that Ben, a literature professor who spends most of a semester engaging students in Chekhov’s short story, sees something of Gurov in himself. He’s a failed writer and his marriage is going nowhere, so the words in which he immerses himself daily provide an escape from middle-age malaise.
Mercedes first seduces him unknowingly when she dons the aforementioned beret and performs a reading of Chekhov at an open mic night at a café in town. Mercedes, a Francophone in bilingual Montreal, inflects the English translation of Chekhov with a cadence that Ben, an Anglo, clearly finds exotic. She then trails him on the street, noticing his interest, and the two hesitatingly exchange paces while trudging along the snowy sidewalks. Cut to class and it turns out that Mercedes is one of Ben’s students, and she soon becomes an object of special interest in class discussions.
It helps that Mercedes has a special insight to “The Lady with the Dog” that her classmates lack. It’s not that she shares an explicit affinity with Anna (except in her tutor’s own erotic fantasies), but she finds an attraction to the literary familiarity of Ben’s loneliness and boredom as their relation progresses from teacher-student to infidelity. Mercedes is in a so-so relationship with Luc (Éric Bruneau, An Eye for Beauty), a doctor, when the film begins, but she abandons it for her own literary endeavours, which happen to use Ben for inspiration.
Ouellet smartly lets the strength of the performers carry this literary seduction. The film also features Marie Fugain in a devastating supporting role (her final scenes are particularly good) as Ben’s neglected wife and literary superior. The film marks a much different turn for the director after the slice-of-life Camion, which feels distinctly Québécois while Gurov and Anna takes place at some intriguing intersection between cultures and languages. (Camion fans will also be happy to know that Gurov and Anna features new songs by Mentana as well.) It’s the director’s first English feature, but the film smartly hinges on visuals and language alike. Being a film with highly literary origins, dialogue and literary references are key in Gurov and Anna, but the subtle visual style alternatives between a cool and detached world for Ben and a warmer, more vibrant world for Mercedes that seduces us.
Gurov and Anna smartly draws upon Chekhov’s story throughout. The subtle and nuanced script by Celeste Parr is wonderfully literate as elements big and small from “The Lady with the Dog” arise in Ben and Mercedes’ affair or shift Ben’s perception of his own story. Like Todd Field’s Little Children or Anne Fontaine’s Gemma Bovery, Gurov and Anna puts its characters in dialogue with literature as they debate the likenesses of Gurov and Anna to their own writing and literary theses; similarly, the film sees the line between art and life blur as Ben fails to see that humans have different limits than their tragic literary counterparts do. Ben directly states to Mercedes how he finds it exciting that he gets everything he wants in life as he strips the skirt off this younger, hotter variation of his favourite character and leaves his wife and kids unsuspectingly at home. He even lists Mercedes as “Anna” in his cellphone, so every adulterous text becomes a little love letter to himself from Chekhov.
However, the film also lets the Chekhov story work at two levels as perspectives shift and Ben/Gurov’s worldview becomes less than ideal and the film leaves audiences with a pathetic dirty old man who falls victim to his own sense of entitlement. Gurov and Anna gives a stronger and much different take on the affair when it lets the muse see it through a different filter. Mercedes remains firmly in control of her relationship with Ben as she uses the attraction for passion and as material for her own work. Desmarais is very, very good as the inquisitive seductress. Anna, unlike her Gurov, sees the world around her with a true novelist’s gift for inspiration.
It’s helps, too, that Desmarais, performing mostly in English, has the right inflections of confidence and hesitation as Mercedes carefully chooses her words as she explores language, plot, and character with her English professor. Apergis, alternatively, is colder and stiffer as Ben, but the contrast works smartly as Ben becomes increasingly unlikeable as his fortune unravels. Since the film draws on Russian literature, one knows that tragedy looms at every turn, and the film verges from the short story in that it finds a fitting closure—melancholy and irony—to tie Ben’s story together with a noose of poetic justice.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
Gurov and Anna is now available to rent via Excentris/the NFB.
*Note: the film is mostly in English with French subtitles, but the French dialogue does not contain English subtitles.