(This will take a while to get around to the movie itself. If you don't want to bear with my ramblings, in brief, I liked Maria's Lovers a lot.)
How does a director learn to direct films? Some go to film schools, some serve apprenticeships in the film industry, some make cheap films in their backyard. But I think that none of these is really how most directors learn how to make films, even the ones who do follow these courses. Unlike most other arts, film does not offer good opportunities to learn by doing. It's just too expensive. The cheap forms of film (such as super 8) are so primitive that what one learns by making them is only a small part of what must be known to direct a major feature film. A full blown film costs, at minimum, tens of thousands of dollars (assuming no sets are built, no one gets paid, one take per scene, etc.), so few can afford to experiment. Think how this compares with painters. Imagine that drawing implements were horrendously expensive, so that aspiring painters could not afford to make sketches. Every canvas would require major support from a patron, and every stroke of the brush would cost a fortune. Even if the inspiration was available, a given painter might only be able to finance one painting every year or so. This is situation that aspiring directors face.
How, then, do directors learn their art? Well, some, obviously, don't. I would venture a guess that four or five times as many directors make first features as ever make second features. But what about those who do?
The answer is that they learn by watching. They look at other people's films. They study how to tell a story, how to convey emotion, how to build suspense, how to get a laugh, by watching how other directors have done it. Ever since the end of the primitive era of film, this is the way it's really been done. D.W. Griffith learned by experimenting. Almost everyone since has learned most of what they know by watching films.
What, you may ask, has this got to do with Maria's Lovers? It is the heart of what is most interesting about this film. Think for a minute about what directors watch to learn. In America, and through most of the Western world, most of what they watch is American movies. European directors have seen more or less of their own countries' films, depending on the strength of its film traditions, but the foundation of most of their viewing is in American films. They, too, grew up with Hollywood. Thus, it shouldn't surprise us much that, when a European director comes out to Hollywood, his films bear a certain resemblance to everything else that comes out of Hollywood. There are usually a few sophisticated or personal touches, but otherwise it fits into the mold pretty well. (The fact that the director is usually the only non-American on the film also has its influence.)
The Russians, though, are a special case, for two reasons. First, almost no American films play in Russia. Many of them get private screenings for the elite, including film directors, but by the time a director is influential enough to be included, he has probably already seen a couple of thousand Russian movies. (Russia has an extremely prolific film industry. Very little of its product ever gets to the US.) He grows up with Russian films, not American ones. Second, Russia has an extremely strong tradition in film. Starting in the early 1920s, the Russians were great innovators in film techniques. They have, from a very early period, developed their own way of doing things. Thus, not only do Russians not see American films, but they draw upon a great stylistic tradition of their own that owes little to American cinema, or at least to any developments of American cinema after 1920.
Which leads me to, finally, the point. Maria's Lovers isn't an American movie. Oh, it's in English, all right, and almost all of the actors (except Nastassja Kinski) are of American origin, and it's set in the US, but it isn't in any way, shape, or form a Hollywood film. Even my fairly superficial background in modern Russian films (I've seen less than half a dozen of them) makes it clear that Andrei Konchalovsky may have defected from the USSR, but he brought their filmmaking techniques with him. From the evidence of this film, and the reputation of Siberiade, his best known Russian film, his may have been the most artistically valuable defection since Baryshnikov. (Does anyone know if Tarkovsky actually defected, or is he just putzing around Western Europe? There's another Russian filmmaker I'd like to see working in the ever-so-slightly-more sympathetic West.)
Maria's Lovers is a splendid film. It looks beautiful, it is well made in every aspect, it is well acted, it has a strong theme (which is a bit slow to develop, admittedly), and all of the film's elements support that theme. This wonderful kind of fusion is, of course, also possible in American films, but the style of Maria's Lovers is totally different from such films. Konchalovsky does things that no American director I know of would try, or likely even think of. Thus, in addition to being well made, Maria's Lovers is refreshingly different.
The story is set just after World War II. John Savage returns to his home town to find Maria (Nastassja Kinski), who was always his friend if not quite his girlfriend, going out with Vincent Spano, an Army captain soon to return home to Detroit. Savage kept himself going in a Japanese prison camp by fantasizing about Maria, and now wants her very, very badly. It doesn't take Maria long to realize that she is really in love with him. So they marry, despite the fact that Savage's father (Robert Mitchum) doesn't think that Savage is good enough for Maria.
But Savage loves Maria too much, and the trauma of the prison camp, particularly an experience involving a rat, spilled over into his fantasy life with Maria. The intensity of his love and the problems caused by his nightmares and fears begin to destroy their life. Savage's increasingly erratic actions, plus the presence of Spano (who still wants Maria to come home with him) and Keith Carradine (as a charming rover whose eye is caught by Maria), act to spoil the couple's lives. I hesitate to get into too many specifics, not because the plot goes through very surprising twists, but because telling too much could cause further impatience with the film's fairly slow pace. Events happen quickly, but themes and resolutions develop slowly.
John Savage has the centerpiece role in the film, despite the title, and it's the best role he has ever had, offering him many opportunities to portray his character's passions and frustrations. His performance overshadows solid work from the rest of the cast. Nastassja Kinski, for me at least, always seems to carry around an slight aura of both perversion and perversity. She tones this down, but doesn't completely eliminate it, in her role as Maria. While she is very strong in the part, it might have been better served by a more classically All-American girl. On the other hand, when Mitchum or Carradine talk about the beauty and mystery of her eyes, you know what they mean.
Mitchum really has a supporting role, but has some very fine moments in it. Carradine's part is in many ways an expansion of his role in Nashville. Again he is a womanizing singer, but this character has a touch more self-knowledge and a lot more charm. He didn't quite convince me that women would be falling at his feet, unfortunately. Otherwise, he played the part extremely well. Bud Cort has a supporting role which gives him little of importance to do, but none the less he manages to create an interesting character from what is given him. One of the major axioms of performances is to always leave them wanting more, and Cort makes me wish I found out more about his character.
The script went through many hands, including Konchalovsky's and those of Paul Zindel, a fairly well-known novelist. The Screenwriter's Guild is loath to allow four authors to share credit for a script (they don't want to dilute the importance of the writer to the film by implying that the script was patched together by a lot of people), but they allowed it in this case. Unlike most collaborations of this sort, the seams don't show. A few touchs I feel were likely Konchalovsky's. For instance, Kinski and Savage have a secret spot where they used to go as children, where, for an unexplained reason, they have left a chair. Throughout the film, we return to shots of that chair. Konchalovsky masterfully uses these to express the state of the lovers' relationship, and I feel sure that this was his idea, as likely was the frequent use of trains in the film.
The photography, by Juan Ruiz-Anchia, is lovely, in the lush European style. Ruiz-Anchia and Konchalovsky have come up with some excellent shots, which again are not the type of shots one is likely to see in an American film. Konchalovsky is willing to let his camera rest on a face rather than dart about, which gives his film a serenity uncommon in most of Hollywood's output. Konchalovsky's use of indirection and symbolism is also very refreshing, and well abetted by Ruiz-Anchia.
In addition to directing and collaborating on the screenplay, Andrei Konchalovsky wrote the music to a lovely song sung by Carradine, who wrote the words. Carradine doesn't have a particularly good voice, but the song is strong enough to overcome that. Though played on a guitar, it has the rhythms and tones suggesting a balalaika. Unlike so many film songs, it plays an integral role in the movie. It should be a strong candidate for an Acadamy Award for Best Song, provided the voters don't forget the film by the time nominations for 1985's Oscars roll around.
Maria's Lovers is perhaps one of the best films I've seen in the past year, and one of the few that instantly left me with the desire to see it again. It is not for all tastes, particularly not for those who demand either slam-bang violence or lurid sex in their movies. Quiet, contemplative, Maria's Lovers leaves a strong afterglow of pleasure at a film well made.
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