In what would be Louis Malle’s final film, he reteamed with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn to film a spare, intimate staging of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. Just as Malle lends a deft, non-intrusive hand to Gregory and Shawn’s conversation in My Dinner With Andre, here he captures a theatrical moment in amber, preserving it and allowing viewers a peek inside a robust creative process.
It’s not necessary to know the film’s backstory to appreciate its immediacy and recognize its success as a film and a piece of filmed theater that can’t simply be pigeonholed as either. But the history helps one understand why the film feels so special — it’s unadorned and unfussy, but it hardly feels tossed-off or casual.
Initially, Gregory, who plays himself as the director in the film, gathered a group of actors in New York City to workshop David Mamet’s translation of Uncle Vanya. The play was never meant to be performed publicly and never really was — each actor was allowed two invitations per performance after a long period of essentially staging it for themselves.
Malle’s film gives us a feeling of being one of those lucky few, as we amble alongside the actors walking through Manhattan and into what is now the New Amsterdam Theatre for a complete run-through rehearsal. The actors — among them, Shawn, Julianne Moore, George Gaynes, and Brooke Smith, all essentially playing themselves — and a few guests chitchat for a few moments before Malle slowly pans and we’ve nearly invisibly entered the play.
The very fact that Chekhov’s play is a masterpiece of existential paralysis and the performances — Shawn as the dissatisfied Vanya; Gaynes as the wealthy, successful brother-in-law, Moore as his much younger second wife and universal object of desire Yelena, Smith as the plain niece Sonya — are electric is enough to ensure that Vanya on 42nd Street is a monumental work. Mamet’s conversational adaptation and the stripped-down approach to costuming and set design (i.e. none) allow one to see into the heart of what makes Uncle Vanya a complex, fascinating examination of life, no matter if you’re in rural 19th Century Russia or a dilapidated Manhattan theater.
But the film is more than simply great theater frozen in time. The open-ended intersection of actor and character and the way the reality of a rehearsal and the reality of the events of the play mingle without a clear boundary between the two makes Vanya on 42nd Street a compelling and intriguing take on what it means to create art.
The Blu-ray Disc
Criterion presents Vanya on 42nd Street in 1080p high definition in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This is a beautiful transfer, displaying fantastic amounts of fine detail in both faces and objects and presenting the film’s softly lift, somewhat shadowy look with impeccable clarity and sharpness. Softness never creeps into the image despite the shooting conditions, and the transfer’s unaltered grain structure ensures a wonderfully film-like presentation.
Audio is presented in an uncompressed 2.0 stereo track that lends great clarity to the voices, which almost exclusively make up the soundtrack, aside from a few bits of music.
There’s only one major extra on the disc, but it’s an excellent one — a Criterion-exclusive 35-minute documentary with new interviews with Shawn, Gregory, Moore, Gaynes, Smith, Larry Pine, Lynn Cohen, and producer Fred Berner. The piece gives a detailed history of the production from its inception as an experimental workshop to the eventual filming, and it’s quite enlightening to hear the actors speak about the way the entire process affected their craft. The disc also features a cropped 1.33:1 trailer for the film.
The package includes a booklet with an essay by Steven Vineberg and a reprint of a 1994 Village Voice feature on the production by Amy Taubin.
The Bottom Line
Lovers of Chekhov, lovers of theater, lovers of Malle, and lovers of the creative process all have something to look forward to with Vanya on 42nd Street, and the transfer and new doc make this edition essential.