The Kreutzer Sonata

Courtesy photo
Bernard Rose/United States 2008

Continuing director Bernard Rose’s reworking of Tolstoy stories after Ivans XTC in 2000, The Kreutzer Sonata shunts the author’s novella into modern Los Angeles and delves deeply into the fragile emotional state of Edgar (Danny Huston). With a house to die for and a job leading a charitable foundation, Edgar would not appear to lack for much. But his boorish instincts start to stir when his pianist second-wife Abby (Elizabeth Röhm) begins rehearsing Beethoven’s sonata with a young violinist, and Edgar’s ugly jealousy starts to eat him alive.

As Edgar becomes increasingly disorientated, the camera follows suit. Rose exploits the opportunities for intimacy allowed by a hand-held digital camera in a way palpably more composed than the generic camera wobble practiced by lesser talents, instead using it for a heightened sense of Edgar’s self-obsession. Filmed in a remarkably short time (“20 leisurely days,” according to Rose afterwards) and with several improvised moments apparently caught on the fly, the film shows Rose hasn’t lost his knack for catching humans cracking up.

Huston can be a terrific ogre. An imposing hulk with the hint of a Nicholson grin, he’s much better at this sort of thing than playing vampires and sidekicks. Edgar’s mind disappears behind frosted glass, adrift in his own imagined world of infidelities while jacked on drugs and hotel porn, and the actor goes with him. In mid-crack up Edgar finds himself pinned down in the back of a limo while the driver launches into a hateful monologue of misogyny, and Huston’s skin visible crawls.

Mature in every sense, the film is sexually explicit and emotionally frank, with protracted sex scenes that switch from tender to aggressive and back and certainly flag the film as being the work of a non-American director. The bedroom choreography of Huston and the willowy blonde Röhm is hugely intimate, but then Rose has always been an interesting, intellectually sharp director. He only loses his way in a climatic and very protracted hand-held shot following Huston towards a fateful encounter with his wife; if there’s a room in the house he failed to visit I didn’t notice, and the tension seeps away to be replaced by admiration of the drapes.

The film’s acting honors belong squarely to Röhm, a brave and athletic performer who reminded me intensely of Theresa Russell in her prime, especially when the film’s explicitness brought to mind the things Russell used to do in Nic Roeg films. In a potentially messy part that receives its fair share of victimization, Röhm makes Abby’s numerous shifts of mood register under her composed, elegant surface, an impressively pragmatic performance.

My theory is that most of that came from Röhm herself, who was equally down-to-earth off-screen. Having posed on the post-screening red carpet and engaged cheerily with passing festival folk, she slipped away with friends but no obvious EIFF minder and clambered into the first passing cab big enough to take her train.

© 2008 Tim Hayes. All rights reserved.

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