Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street is a fascinating piece of work that blurs the lines between film, the theatre, and the human experience while captivating every step of the way. Malle’s last motion picture is handsomely minimalistic as it strips away many familiar storytelling elements to get to the fundamental truth of its characters.
The essence of Vanya on 42nd Street came out of stage director Andre Gregory’s desire to greater understand the work of Anton Chekhov. He gathered a group of actors and held “rehearsals” in the abandoned Victory Theatre on 42nd Street in New York City. The notion to film it came when Malle visited Gregory’s project and expressed a desire to put it to celluloid. The resulting film is a marvellous documentation of the power of words and characters. Settings, costumes, effects, and staging are irrelevant.
Explaining things in terms of plot is secondary, but that doesn’t mean there is no structure. Uncle Vanya (Wallace Shawn) is in his 40s and has long served as the manager of an estate held by Serybryakov (George Gaynes). Serybryakov eventually returns to the estate, bringing the beautiful Yelena (Julianne Moore) with him as his young wife. This unleashes a secret passion from Vanya that seems to go hand in hand with his writhing, insistent hatred for Serybryakov. Vanya feels he has wasted his life caring for the old man’s affairs.
There are other characters at the estate, including Vanya’s “plain” sister Sonya (Brooke Smith), his mother (Lynn Cohen), and a doctor (Larry Pine) who likes to drink. Serybryakov’s arrival draws various emotions and latent conditions from most of the characters in the play and it isn’t long before we are aware of quiet affection and burning lust between various figures.
This would have made a hell of a period piece, but in the hands of Gregory and Malle this becomes an experimental film beyond compare. The fact that they use a translation from David Mamet makes things crackle all the more. We are transported from an estate in Russia to a crumbling stage complete with an “I Heart New York” coffee mug and the performers in their street clothes. So entrancing are the actors and so intoxicating are the words that we don’t care about the setting or what we might be “missing.”
This is, after all, pure deconstruction. The lines are hard to pick up on and the play begins at some point we may or may not be aware of. This fits with the predominant theme of what use we have for our lives in that it commendably questions where the theatrical and the real intersect. The characters are lost in numerous things (the doctor is lost in drink, for instance) and the film doesn’t endeavour to force them out of their respective distresses.
Also part of the experience is Malle’s brilliant direction. Every so often he reminds us gently that we are watching a play or the rehearsal of a play by illustrating the director and a small audience sitting nearby. Gregory makes a few light comments and even calls to an intermission of sorts at one point; he is entirely absorbed and the play is indeed the thing.
Vanya on 42nd Street is a unique motion picture and it’s not for everyone, least of all those more used to being transported by settings or costumes or special effects. It is a caring, alert motion picture that cares for its characters and honours the art of the word.
The Criterion Collection DVD release is stupendous. It features a new digital transfer of the 1994 picture as supervised by Declan Quinn, the director of photography. The original soundtrack was also remastered at 24-bit from the original magnetic audio tracks, with irregularities removed using Pro Tools HD.
Special features include a documentary that runs about 25 minutes and covers new interviews with Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Julianne Moore, producer Fred Berner, and so on. As with most Criterion special editions, there is an extensive booklet included as well. There’s also a film trailer.