Monday, December 20, 2010

The Women Karamazov: An Analysis of the 1958 American Adaptation

It's going to be difficult for me to do a review on this film without getting into the source material. It remains my favorite piece of fiction, and I was pleasantly surprised when first watching this considering the extensive effort that was put into being true to the philosophical nature of Dostoevsky. Considering Americans always royally fuck up any good literature (especially Russian) when making it a Hollywood thing, The Brothers Karamazov (1958), dir. Richard Brooks, is a refreshing adaptation and yeilds a comparison of sexual prowess and Mulveyain seduction; Katya (Claire Bloom) and Grushenka (Maria Schell).
Here's a little background. Katya (Katerina Ivanovna) is a lady in all respects. She comes from money, and is madly in love with the oldest brother Dmitri.
Claire Bloom is more or less perfect for this part. She's whimsical, demure, lovely, but not gorgeous. Also, she's a bit of an ice princess. She's nice to look at but you wouldn't actually want to tap that. Her hair is cropped tightly behind her head, her dresses are very proper and somewhat smarmy. She definitely has that gentle touch, but it seems foreboding as if any minute she would turn into a venus fly trap and eat a man whole.
Contrasted to her is the free spirited, tenacious, Grushenka (Argafena Alexandrovna). She's a vagabond of a woman, a lady, but wild and rebellious. She is the owner of a tavern, and is having an affair with the elder Karamazov, the father (played by Lee J. Cobb). She soon seduces Dmitri (Yul Brynner) after she buys up his debts accumulated from his father, and he tracks her down to discuss it with her. An excellent exchange between the two goes:

Dmitri: Stop! Wait!
Grushenka: Yes Lieutenant, is that an order? Oh you have come to pay me the money you owe me? Or you have come to beat me? I might like that.

She takes him to a tavern on the outskirts of town and he blows 500 rubles to have a gipsy party with her. She seals the deal when she does a seductive dance in her corset with a gipsy scarf.

The role was originally intended for Marilyn Monroe, who at the time was sick of the menial projects 20th Century Fox was sending her direction and was taking classes under Lee Strasberg at the Actor's Studio, wanting to become a serious actress. And let's face it, how perfect would that have been. As her husband at the time, Arthur Miller had stated; 'everything about her was controversial'. Ergo, Grushenka was the ideal role for her at the time. But for some reason or another, she backed out and the role went to Maxamilian Schell's older sister, Maria. She was pretty enough, great bosom, and a lyrical voice, but she was no Monroe. Nevertheless, she proved to be a good opposite to Claire Bloom's well-mannered Katya.

In this analysis, we can argue that both women as opposite as they are of each other can both be considered Mulveyian, or Haskellian for that matter.
Both exemplify the castration concept that Mulvey theorized about but by different means.

Grushenka is the obvious Mulvey/Haskell incarnation as she is threatening to the male spectator considering how little regard she has for the status quo and 'a woman's place', She is rogue, rebellious, and unapologetic. She seduces not only Dmitri, but also his father, and inadvertently causes a significant rift between the two which ends with Father Karamazov's murder, and Dmitri being wrongfully accused of it. In this, she becomes the catalyst for the great moral conflict of the story of the Brothers Karamazov. She not only causes men to question their choices and beliefs, but is actually capable of transforming them into her idea of a good human being, and a good partner.

Katya on the other hand is threatening because of her stoicism. She is neither affected nor hurt when Dmitri is put on trial for the murder of her father, and also indifferent to his younger brother Ivan's advances towards her. She seems completely impenetrable, and is the only one who does not bat an eye to change herself regarding the new circumstances that engulf the characters in the story. Even Ivan (Richard Basehart), a stubborn atheist ends up recanting his beliefs when he realizes what is what in the whole conflict and Dmitri's demise. But she keeps her cool, and even ends up taking revenge on Dmitri for cheating on her by acting as a witness for the prosecution at his trial.
It can be seen as Grushenka is the catalyst for Dmitri's demise, while Katya is the villain who attempts to completely destroy him afterwards.

Maria Schell as Grushenka on the left, Claire Bloom as Katya on the right. If you watch the film, you will notice there is much more to this distinction than just their physical attributes. 
And while both parts are those that young ingenues dream of playing one day, the more significant is obviously Grushenka. At the time this film was made, it was an opportunity to play a character so opposing of the standards of the times (America in the 1950's). She symbolizes sexual power; one that is incorruptible but is capable of corruption of men's souls. This kind of power is exactly what we as spectators simultaneously admire and fear. All this said, it is actually still played down from what her character is like in the novel. It is a bit of a glossed over Grushenka who is a flirt and tease, while the book portrays her as an indelible feminine force.
I would recommend this film, not only for Maria Schell, but because of how the entire cast is able to accurately translate the characters they play into performance. Dostoevsky is notorious for being poorly translated into English, but even more notorious for being just about the most difficult material to be adapted for the screen. His books are volumes long, very dense, and very philosophical. But the task is still to this day intriguing to filmmakers. And none has before or since done better in my opinion than this film.

1 comment:

Ryzhik said...

Interesting. I think that more than sexual power, Grushenka symbolizes the free spirit. And yes, it is the most desirable female part in BK. There are a lot of layers and dimensions.