by Tony Dayoub
I must confess that I'm not well versed in the work of Leo Tolstoy. But in reading up on some background for this review, I was surprised to discover that the eponymous novella on which The Kreutzer Sonata is based has been filmed almost half as many times as there have been 007 movies. The tale centers on the mounting jealousy of a husband who suspects his pianist wife may be cheating on him with a violinist she's gotten to know as the two rehearse Beethoven's Sonata No. 9. This go-round, the modernized adaptation is helmed by a director I've always had a sneaking admiration for, Bernard Rose (Immortal Beloved).
Rose--whose filmography displays a predilection for Beethoven, Tolstoy and an inclination towards searching for profundity in the mysteries of sexuality--sometimes comes off as a slicker "dirty old man" type, a la Zalman King, when he delves too deep into that last obsession. He did direct a couple of episodes of Inside Out, a softcore series for Playboy channel, back in the '90s (but, then again, so did a little director by the name of Alexander Payne). Anyway, the relevance here is that the first deceptive impressions one gets from The Kreutzer Sonata, with its low-budget digital video format, small cast and minimal locations, is not far off from what one would see on said Playboy series. But the further one burrows into the little seen film, the more one realizes there's more substance than an initial reading may yield.
A fair amount of subtext is derived from Danny Huston's performance as the husband, Edgar. A privileged man, Edgar's lofty sense of self-regard is borne, at least in part, out of the charitable work he manages. As the seed of suspicion regarding his wife Abby's infidelity grows, Huston makes it a point to play up the unscripted distraction it causes in Edgar's daily work. As Edgar's obsessive jealousy begins to take hold, Edgar's job running the foundation goes to shit and down goes his self-worth. Edgar spies Abby's casual interactions with her fellow musician, Aiden (Matthew Yang King), as well as her growing disgust with his own insecurities. Every half-smile from Abby to Aiden reminds Edgar of the interactions which characterized their own dalliance. And so Edgar can't help but feel that he is now the cuckold. Huston's more famous sister, Anjelica, also appears in the film as Edgar's sister Ellinore, a signal that this story may be personal for the actor, who was going through his own tumultuous divorce at the time this was filmed (his wife committed suicide in 2008).
Rose utilizes what some might call a natural rigidity in Elisabeth Röhm to make Abby impenetrable. Neither actress nor director ever tips the viewer off if Abby really is cheating on Edgar or whether it's all in his increasingly delusional head. The same quality of mystery that made Abby attractive to Edgar is what undermines his trust in her. And Röhm only seems to display any emotion in the early submissive sexual acts Abby participates in for her husband. It's a canny way of making Abby as much an object of desire for the viewer as for Edgar, frustratingly so when she finally closes off even that avenue from her husband.
It's too bad that this new release is only available on DVD. The digital cinematography (also by Rose) kind of begs for the immediacy Blu-ray can grant. As The Kreutzer Sonata spirals down toward its disturbingly inevitable conclusion, Rose capitalizes on his ability to fuse horror and romance (as he did in Candyman) with his knowledge of Beethoven and Tolstoy's works to come up with a movie that doesn't just ring true but deeply personal. At its least interesting, Rose's film is reminiscent of the recent work of director Mike Figgis (Leaving Las Vegas) another filmmaker who sometimes feels a bit pretentious as he pushes the sexual envelope in cinema. But at its best, which is quite often, The Kreutzer Sonata plays like a direct inheritor of some of the more daring concepts promulgated by Bernardo Bertolucci in Last Tango in Paris and The Dreamers. It's an attribute that makes The Kreutzer Sonata more haunting than you might first expect.