* (Has redeeming facet)

Directed by Nikita Mikhalkov

Written by Alexander Adabachian and Nikita Mikhalkov

With Marcello Mastroianni, Silvana Mangano, Marthe Keller, and Elena Sofonova.

Nikita Mikhalkov is little known in the U.S. except on the festival circuit, where films like An Unfinished Piece for Player Piano, Five Evenings, and Oblomov have earned him a solid but not exciting reputation. It was a different story with his 1976 melodramatic comedy A Slave of Love, which caused a flurry in its U.S. debut. His story of a group of silent-movie actors caught up in the Russian Revolution won critical acclaim in weekly newsmagazines amid flying rumors that Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson were such fans that they were contemplating financing the distribution. At the height of this short-lived notoriety Mikhalkov made a triumphal tour of the U.S., appearing at screenings of his films in major cities, including Chicago. He had the look of someone who was bound for Hollywood. A handsome, flamboyant actor who had starred in a number of his own films, he cultivated a mixture of East and West in his personal style, sporting jeans jacket, Adidas T-shirt, and flowing red scarf, while traveling with a princely amount of luggage including numerous bottles of Russian vodka and several tennis rackets. To the surprise of some, when the tour was over and the rumors died down, Mikhalkov returned to Moscow and resumed his relatively privileged life as a popular director and scion of an elite family with a long history in the arts. His subsequent films became more talky and leaned more heavily on literary adaptation, mostly losing that touch of lunacy that made A Slave of Love exceptional. The Hollywood route was pursued instead by his older brother Andrei Mikhalkov Konchalovsky, who has since directed four American films including Maria’s Lovers and Runaway Train.

It’s appropriate that one of these brothers would have made a film with the title Runaway Train because it’s an image that could function as a metaphor for the work of either of them. Nikita Mikhalkov’s films in particular have always followed the same pattern. Typically, the pacing slowly picks up speed until the drama is deliriously out of control. In fact, 90 minutes of plodding dialogue could be forgiven in an instant, when they were followed by one of these endings full of wild expressions of emotion. Unfortunately, this pleasure is denied us in Dark Eyes. In Mikhalkov’s attempts to be classy, ironic, and bittersweet, he dilutes and dissipates the one thing that he’s really good at.

Mikhalkov is an actor’s director and displays little visual imagination. What carries his films is the force of acting excess, and this is what truly interests him anyway, so it’s easy to see why he was attracted by the opportunity of working with Marcello Mastroianni in Dark Eyes. After seeing Oblomov Mastroianni became an ardent admirer of Mikhalkov’s work and began to follow his career. Finally, Mastroianni approached Mikhalkov and suggested they work together; the result was this film.

Mastroianni is a demonstrative actor who in his comic roles doesn’t disdain the buffoon, playing him for all he’s worth, especially when it comes to creating a parody of the Latin lover. Dark Eyes was designed to exploit Mastroianni, in his broadest portrayal yet as the philandering male who is finally tripped up by his own enduring superficiality.

What can you say about a film that hasn’t got much more to recommend it than a restrained performance by a cute dog in a walk-on part (sometimes a carry-on part)? The film is based on several short stories by Chekhov, but primarily “The Lady With the Little Dog.” In the manner of many international hybrid productions, picturesque locations and period settings in both Italy and the Soviet Union are employed, along with a large cast of actors of both nationalities, and that fluffy little dog (of unknown national origin).

Mastroianni plays Romano, an aging Italian playboy who abandoned a career as an architect to live off his wealthy wife’s money. Most of the story is told in flashback, as Romano meets a stranger aboard an ocean liner, a Russian passenger on his honeymoon, and tells him of a romantic exploit with a Russian woman that became his downfall.

Mikhalkov uses two methods of exposition to set up this story–talking-head dialogue and cutely eccentric tableaux. In the encounter between a world-weary Romano and the Russian, Pavel, in the ship’s salon, the meager possibilities for varying camera angles within a conventional framework are soon exhausted, leaving you to ponder with increasing frequency such questions as whether or not the large moles on Pavel’s face are real. And how the two men do talk. The thrust of Romano’s reminiscences make it quite obvious that at some point the director is going to cut away to the flashback that will make up the bulk of the story, but it seems to take forever to happen.

The flashback finally gets rolling when Romano proffers a photograph of himself posed on a lawn with his wife’s family and friends, and the photo comes to life in his hands. Mikhalkov repeats the artificial rhythm of that scene again and again, his planted, static camera catching Romano posing for photographs with a suit of armor, Romano stalking around the lawn imitating a rooster, servants parading and posing with bizarre flower arrangements. The intent is clearly to provide atmosphere–turn-of-the-century surroundings and Romano’s bored and useless existence on his wife’s sumptuous estate. The method, however, is so strikingly superficial, adding up to something like a garden party variety show almost unconnected to the narrative, that Mikhalkov crosses the line between depicting boredom and creating it. The other characters are stick figures–his noble, beautiful wife (Silvana Mangano) and his equally beautiful and sophisticated mistress (Marthe Keller), both in only bit parts. Because the movie is really about Romano’s seduction of another young woman at a spa and his subsequent pursuit of her, during the exposition Mikhalkov is just treading water until the good part starts. Unhappily, the good part never starts.

It becomes evident by the time Romano gets to the spa that the story isn’t even about a love affair but about his reaction to a love affair. Each bit of the plot is a chance to show him off. It’s not the character Romano who’s being shown off, but Mastroianni–he’s Mikhalkov’s prize actor-clown, lamentably transformed into a jittery, hyperkinetic carbon copy of Mikhalkov himself as an actor. You can sense Mikhalkov thanking his lucky stars that he’s got Mastroianni in front of his camera as he cavorts in every way imaginable. Ham-acting his way through various comedy vignettes, Mastroianni never has time to develop emotional depth as a character. In Romano’s first encounter with his love, Anna (Elena Sofonova), he fakes a limp so she has to hold him up to walk, then goes leaping off like a madman to show her he’s cured. Another time he solemnly walks chest-deep into a pool of therapeutic mud to retrieve her hat, which the wind has blown off. She’s so grateful she sleeps with him, but then leaves the spa without saying good-bye. She leaves only a letter, in Russian, telling him that she’s married.

Once she’s gone he decides she really was the love of his life. He eventually follows her to Russia using the ruse that he’s going to open a factory manufacturing unbreakable glass as the reason to visit her small town to search her out. The unexpected welcome Romano receives from the officials and most of the citizens of Sisoiev, who are delighted that the factory is coming to their backwater town, is one extended sequence in which the emphasis shifts away from Mastroianni’s mugging to something Mikhalkov feels less reverence for. It’s a big musical sequence full of wild movement, featuring broadly caricatured bureaucrats, peasants, and gypsies. One official can’t help performing a little shimmy of joy, his eyes popping with excitement. This is the kind of emotional craziness that’s pure Mikhalkov–anything less is wasting his time and ours.

After a fun scene like that it’s tedious to have to return to Romano and his dreary quest. After spotting Anna’s dog on the street he locates her installed in a palatial home in a loveless marriage to an elderly aristocrat. He begs her to leave her husband so that he can join her once he’s ended his marriage back in Italy, and she agrees.

Dark Eyes is technically quite inept. First of all, the postdubbed dialogue is incredibly out of sync–a level of sloppiness that’s a scandal in a film that’s being promoted and distributed on this commercial level. Second, shots are not matched well, resulting in some strange changes of lighting as scenes intercut between characters in the same room. Mikhalkov has never been any wizard when it comes to visual composition, but he usually doesn’t force attention to his weakness in this area. In Dark Eyes he attempts a running visual motif so clumsy that it gives the whole film an added aura of stupidity. Throughout the film there are inexplicable close-ups and zooms into the backs of actors’ heads, including one view of the back of a watermelon carved as a jack-o’-lantern. This could be some radical new film statement, but it turns out to be a misguided attempt to put a big spotlight on his ending, which concerns the Russian passenger’s wife. This feeble revelation, however, hardly makes the preceding footage worth the wait.