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What it’s about: The Lady with the Dog is the story of an affair between two unhappily married people, Dmitri, who is somewhat older, and Anna. They meet while vacationing in Yalta without their respective spouses. When there time in Yalta comes to an end, they go their separate ways, each believing their time together has likewise come to an end. Dmitri, however, finds himself unable to forget Anna. Haunted by her memory and driven to escape his otherwise dreary life, he goes to some length to see her again, and the affair resumes.
What I like about it: First, who doesn’t like a well-told story of true love that, for whatever reason, simply wasn’t meant to be? Dmitri’s reference to Tristan and Isolde serves as a reminder that this plot is nothing new. My particular high-water mark for this plot device is Brief Encounter, the 1945 film by Noel Coward, and while this film isn’t quite as good as that, it comes pretty darn close. Oddly, although The Lady with the Dog actually post-dates Coward’s work by fifteen years, it seems the earlier work of the two. No doubt, in part, this owes to the earlier setting. If the possibility of divorce and shame of infidelity were difficult in pre-war England, they were positively unthinkable in 19th century Russia, and unlike the lovers from Brief Encounter, Dmitri and Anna are not going to find any happiness at home either. It’s very Russian in that regard. Even their happy moments together are tinged with a melancholic presentiment of departure. Also making it seem more dated are some of the scenes with Anna that have a very silent-era feel to them. They’re done well though and lend a poetic sensibility rather than an anachronistic one.
Second, although simply and straightforwardly told, it’s done very artfully. Several motifs, such as acts of charity and gloves from a lady’s hand are repeated throughout the film. Whether this is simply to build characterization or to function symbolically, I don’t know, but it certainly adds to the film’s overall interest.
Third, the cinematography is gorgeous. The shots are composed beautifully, and many scenes could stand as works of art in themselves. I can’t believe the film hasn’t been chosen for inclusion in the Criterion Collection based on the strength of the cinematography alone.
And finally, I love the ending. Ikiru and Lost in Translation are the only films I can think of with endings that are as poetic, and speaking of the end of Lost in Translation, it clearly owes a debt to the final conversation between the two lovers in this film.
Who will like it? Fans of Chekhov, fans of cinematography, and hopeless romantics. I would call it and understated melodrama, and, yes, I know those terms don’t make any sense together, but watch it, and you’ll see what I mean.