From the Videotheque Vault: An Unfinished Piece for the Player Piano (1977)

One of Nikita Mikhalkov’s earlier films, An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano is considered one of the best film adaptations of a Chekhov play. It is based on an early play, abandoned by the writer, called Platonov. The film powerfully integrates theatrical and cinematic elements to portray an emotional upheaval during a meeting between several wealthy friends in the Russian countryside.
The setting of the film is pretty standard; a disillusioned schoolteacher named Michael Platonov and his new wife come to a party at his mistress’s house. There, among friends, he meets his old sweetheart, Sofia, whom he has not seen since she abruptly left him seven years earlier, and who is now married to his mistress’s unbearably pretentious stepson. While the beginning of the film is boring and confusing — with a huge host of characters greeting each other in various joking and excited ways — as the plot unfolds, the unresolved tensions heighten, and each character is flushed out through their behavior in both private and public.

One of the early, theatrical scenes; Platonov’s mistress and a friend

The film becomes increasingly cinematic as it progresses; the beginning is very theatrical. The scenery has no life and resembles a stage backdrop. The camera is stationary and seemingly oblivious to the actors’ presence, as if it is not controlled; characters often pass outside the frame and 1930s-style medium shots are primarily used in the opening scenes when people are greeting one another. The action is contained, as it would be onstage, within the relatively small space it occurs (a room, a garden, etc.) Even the characters themselves take part in this theater-like dynamic; one of them keeps watch on the road through a spyglass and witnesses others’ meetings, as if enjoying his own private play. By gentle, scarcely perceptible degrees, however, the presence of the camera and director becomes felt. The camera follows the actors and starts moving around the room. One of the first moments that markedly distinguishes the cinematic from the theatrical is when Platonov and Sofia first look straight at each other. All other sound fades and an eerie strain of music is heard as their eyes meet. The film offers us progressively more glimpses of the private lives of the characters as they wander away from the crowd. It is almost a running joke throughout the film as many of them turn to the liquor cabinet for support.

One of the later scenes, more cinematic scenes; Platonov fleeing the house in a
hysterical state (interaction with the landscape, movement on a scale that
can only be captured by camera, more open frame) 
While the film continues to adhere to many theatrical traditions, it often undermines them as well. For example, several times the characters speak and then are suddenly aware that they are not being listened to, most strikingly when Sofia tries to explain away her behavior to Platonov, only to find that he is gone and she has been speaking to an empty room. In this way, the film devalues the emphasis placed on dialogue in plays. The landscape also goes from being flat to playing an active part as the characters actively interact with it. One of the most visually intriguing scenes is one in which Platonov and Sofia are talking and, as someone passes, they hide in a closet to avoid being seen. Platonov is smoking and we only see his shoulder and head at the edge of the frame; everything beyond him is darkness except in the momentary spaces when he draws on his cigar and Sofia, standing in front of him, is illuminated by the glow. He seems to be speaking to the darkness; she only separates herself from it at his will, showing that, to him, she is the projection of his fantasies and memories. This is reinforced at the end of the film with a more theatrical move in which Sofia’s head is screened by the side of the carriage she sits in, leaving her literally faceless — lacking the strength, personality, and originality with which Platonov endowed her in his mind.

Sasha and Platonov
Virginia Woolf famously wrote of Chekhov, “We have rather the feeling that we have overrun our signals; or it is as if a tune had stopped short without the expected chords to close it. These stories are inconclusive, we say, and proceed to frame a criticism based upon the assumption that stories ought to conclude in a way that we recognize. In so doing we raise the question of our own fitness as readers.” It is perhaps this sense of a lack of answers, of “the futility of life” that this film conveys best. The theme of being unfinished, of a lack of control, pervades the film. The player piano of the title causes Platonov’s wife, Sasha, to faint with horror at the sight of an instrument playing without human control. In one of the final scenes, Sofia is sitting with her husband in a horseless carriage. Platonov tries to speak but is drowned out by singing, and he struggles to push open doors that open outwards. Near the end of the film, overwhelmed by the a sudden, sharpened realization of his futility, Platonov, now hysterical, strides, down a hallway that seems to close in upon him, unable to find the door that leads outside, with faceless people milling about. He eventually tries to commit suicide by jumping into a comically shallow river. In one of the film’s most touching performances, his wife runs after him and tells him that she loves him and she is happy to be his wife. Despite this, Platonov’s mistress’s voice speaks over the final moments of the film, saying that everything will be as it has been, that nothing has changed. And indeed, nothing in any of the characters’ lives has changed–we leave them as we met them. It is this sense of not only being unable to change life, but even oneself, that is the main theme of the film; the sense of being unfinished, incomplete, imperfect, andnot living up to one’s full potential–and being unable to do anything about it.

-Anna Shane
Sasha feints at the sight of the player piano
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