Pacing absurdly through his wife’s elegant garden party, his hands behind his back, his head bobbing like some living dunk-'em bird, Marcello Mastroianni puts the last bit of body English on a role he has come to own, the weak-willed, charming clown. You’ll find him at the center of “Dark Eyes” (Cineplex Odeon, Century Plaza Cinemas), a lush, bittersweet romance, made with equal parts of irony and soulfulness, as befits a Russian-Italian co-production.
It has been directed and co-adapted by Nikita Mikhalkov, who holds the patent on another style: Chekhoviana--perfectly caught portraits of the Russian aristocracy fallen into melancholy and immobility just before the 1917 revolution. Mikhalkov’s supreme achievement in this style was “Slave of Love”; his runners-up were ‘Oblomov” and “An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano,” the only one of the three whose source was actually Chekhov.
For “Dark Eyes,” Mikhalkov, Alexander Adabachian and the noted Italian screenwriter Suso Cecchi D’Amico have primarily used the incomparable Chekhov story “The Lady With the Little Dog,” as well as strands from “The Birthday Party,” “Subjugated Anna” and “My Wife,” which provides its ending. However this time, the purity and unity which distinguished Mikhalkov’s earlier films have dissipated; it’s a film made in stripes, a sliver of Mikhalkov, a broad layer of Fellini, a bit of Bertolucci in an atmosphere of Visconti, and so on, until it’s an Italo-Russian pousse-cafe , shamelessly enjoyable but a little cloying too.
It’s a story told in an exquisite framework, a reminiscence between two men in the deserted dining room of a luxury Italian cruise ship at the turn of the century. Hearing a Russian accent, Mastroianni, pouched-eyed and with a good alcoholic flush, strikes up a delighted conversation with the gentle, diffident, slightly older passenger (Vsevolod Larionov), a Russian merchant. Since they are strangers, and since Larionov admits sheepishly that he is on his honeymoon, it’s natural for the subject to be love.
And so we move backward, into the account of Mastroianni’s marriage as a penniless architecture student, to Silvana Mangano, heiress to her father’s banking interests. Unfortunately, luxury does not prove to be character-building for the bold, young husband. By the time we see him, doing his bird imitations across the palatial family estate 25 years later, character is pretty well a dead duck.
His wife regards him with barely-tender condescension; his mistress, Marthe Keller, whose own husband is even more foolish than Mastroianni, is under no illusions about her lover, and even Mastroianni himself is dimly aware of his frittered-away life, although he perceives it as “exhaustion.”
His solution is a trip “to take the waters” at a nearby spa. There, to the accompaniment of Strauss waltzes and with such Fellinish riffs as a bath-chair derby and sheet-clad aristocrats gamboling in the oozing, bubbling mud baths, he comes face to face with his destiny in the form of an exquisite and wretchedly unhappy young Russian wife, Elena Sofonova.
The two have the briefest of encounters--brief, but quite shatteringly enough. She flees; he pursues (into deep Gogol country, yet another stylistic gear-change); all must finally turn upon his strength of character. Will he be able to summon it up, weak from disuse, and save them both?
Mastroianni’s performance is so beautifully faceted--he is by turns foolish, resigned, bemused, enraptured and even mock-heroic--that the issue seems to be in doubt. He is surrounded by a lovely cast, most especially Sofonova, Keller and Mangano. Those who loved “Oblomov” will spot Oleg Tabakov, the actor who played that title role as the key official of Mastroianni’s provincial tour. Larionov, another great Soviet star, makes the perfect, love-sick foil to Mastroianni’s jaded, illusionless philanderer.
“Dark Eyes” is full of magnificent set-pieces: the opening and closing conversations of the two men; the lawn birthday party for Mangano (something of a magnificent set-piece herself); the hilarious bureaucratic odyssey through one after another small Russian town, which Mastroianni risks in order to find Sofonova.
But there are excesses too--Mikhalkov doesn’t have the mad genius of Fellini and so the spa sequences become, at the same time, too big and not really magically outrageous enough. The sequence where Mastroianni pursues Sofonova, beginning with her tray of clinking glasses and ending in the chicken coop with feather-dandruff all over his coat, is groaningly corny. And the Frances Lai music seems always to underscore the obvious.
These may be minor points to some, since “Dark Eyes” is seductively easy to swallow whole. It feels even disloyal to point them out--until you remember the aching perfection of the earlier Mikhalkov, or unless you are lucky enough to remember the great, preceding “Lady With the Small Dog,” by director Joseph Heiftz. It is the memory of those which compel a few demurs to this sumptuous elegy.
‘DARK EYES’ An Island Pictures release of a Silvia D’Amico Bendico presentation in association with Francis Von Buren. Producers Bendico, Carlo Cucchi. Director Jikita Mikhalkov. Screenplay Alexander Adabachian, Mikhalkov with the collaboration of Suso Cecchi D’Amico, based on short stories by Anton Chekhov. Camera Franco di Giacomo. Costumes Carlo Diappi, made by Tirelli Costumi, Roma. Production designers Mario Garbuglia, Alexander Adabachian. Editor Enzo Meniconi. Music Franci Lai. Associate producer Gilbert Marouani. With Marcello Mastroianni, Marthe Keller, Elena Sofonova, Pina Cei, Vsevolod Larionov, Innokenti Smoktunovski, Oleg Tabakov, Silvana Mangano.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
Times rated: Mature (fleeting nudity, adult themes)