I can imagine some small-minded philistine trying to dismiss Louis Malle’s Vanya on 42nd Street (1994) as “uncinematic,” on the grounds that it’s basically a film of a bare-bones staging of a play, and because the camerawork and editing are so unobtrusive as to appear invisible. But there are all sorts of ways for a film to be cinematic (or uncinematic), and sometimes “all” that’s needed to make a great film is a solid mounting of a dependable source text. Except that Andre Gregory’s mounting of Vanya ends up being so much more than just “solid,” and Chekhov’s play is so much more than just “dependable,” that even that description isn’t really appropriate to the film, which, nearly a quarter-century after the fact, remains nothing short of sublime.
As mountings go, it’s exquisite—the actors had been living and working with this material for so long that they handle it with an almost uncanny intimacy. They know how to move, how to breathe; the film itself knows how to breathe. In addition to this Vanya on 42nd Street is an example of how film can act (always acts) as a record of a collaboration between artists who have come together at a particular moment in time, a moment than will never (can never) happen again. And on top of that, Vanya is a record of a specific moment in the histories of film and theatre, made as it was at a time when the possibilities of independent cinema still seemed limitless and the possibilities of serious theatre in America seemed all but non-existent. The film plays with this context, sometimes subtly, sometimes pointedly. The impending corporatization of Broadway in the 1990s is made to parallel the hostile takeover of Vanya’s estate by the bourgeois Professor. Meanwhile, squatting in the ruins of the New Amsterdam Theater, which appears to crumble before our very eyes, Gregory and his actors go about their work with a purposefulness that Chekhov himself would have admired. They’re like the wildflowers that break through the floorboards of an abandoned porch, determined to flourish even in the midst of dilapidation and neglect; if there is no audience to appreciate their beauty, they will be beautiful for themselves.
Everything about Vanya on 42nd Street is handled with a level of care that feels unreal. Malle’s approach in capturing the performance seems to have been to stay as much out of the way of the actors as possible—another decision that could be dismissed as “uncinematic,” were it not so radical. (How many films of plays are this pure in their respect for the actors and the material?) It helps, too, that Malle and Gregory had such good actors to stay out of the way of. Wallace Shawn will probably never give another performance, or get another role, as good as Vanya, but Julianne Moore is maybe even better; her Yelena is earthier and warmer than expected, so that her vanity and lack of ambition stick out even more glaringly as flaws. But it’s Brooke Smith as Sonia who steals the film. Shawn is best at playing Vanya in dialogue scenes when he can bounce off of the other actors, but his bigger speeches and soliloquys don’t always land right, whereas Smith knocks each one of her arias out of the park. It’s a testament to the power of her abilities as an actor that she can make the final speech of the play—which, in the wrong hands, could feel like sentimental pabulum—a convincing expression of faith by the only purely good character in the play.