The sumptuously shot, costumed, designed and scored Russian import “The Duelist” dazzles and provokes as it makes little real sense beyond the confines of its hermetic milieu. Still, patient viewers should find writer-director Alexey Mizgirev’s often bloody, overheated action-drama set in 1860 St. Petersburg a strangely watchable journey.
Despite its many characters, histories and allegiances, the film essentially pits nails-tough former Imperial Army officer Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov) against the wicked and debt-laden Count Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov), who, we will learn, helped arrange the recent spate of murderous duels in which Yakovlev was paid to fight as a surrogate.
But loyalties gravely shift as Yakovlev’s true background and intentions are revealed; a princess (Yuliya Khlynina), her prince brother (Pavel Tabakov) and a flame-haired Duchess (Franziska Petri) begin to factor in, and Beklemishev ultimately opts for a do-or-die power grab. Haunting Aleutian Island-set flashbacks help explain Yakovlev’s near-mythic invincibility.
Mizgirev’s ambitious attempt to square such topics as class and nobility, ritual pistol-dueling, greed and personal destiny, all through the prism of mid-19th century European mores and laws, proves a bit fuzzy.
Better to focus on the film’s lush trappings, tense gunplay (Russian roulette, anyone?) and the steely actions of the inscrutable Yakovlev, who, as inhabited by the fit and dashing Fyodorov, proves a uniquely magnetic anti-hero.
In Russian, German and Aleut with English subtitles.
MPAA Rating: R for strong violence and some sexuality/nudity.
Running time: 1 hour, 49 minutes.
Playing: Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica.