Delightful literary meta-adaptation with an all-star cast on good form

Savina Petkova on Michael Mayer’s ‘The Seagull’ (2018)

The Seagull is Michael Mayer’s second feature film based on a literary source. A whole sixteen years after his rendition of Michael Cunningham’s coming-of-age novel A Home at the End of the World (2004) comes a visual tribute to Anton Chekhov’s seminal play. Set in 19th century provincial Russia, the story centres around unrequited love at a summer lake house, bringing together ageing actress Irina (Annette Bening) and her celebrated novelist lover, Boris (Corey Stoll) to face her son, Konstantin (Billy Howle)—an angsty young symbolist poet. The catalyst of a Freudian triangle is young Nina (Saoirse Ronan), Konstantin’s partner who passionately yearns to be on Moscow’s theatre stage and begins to fall for Boris.

While tragedy lurks in covert glances, long silences, or laughter, it is the defensive mechanism of comedy that reveals the characters’ triumphs and failures in a hyperbolised Russian setting. Writer Stephen Karam’s interpretation of the canonic Russian play remains faithful, lively, yet concealed in what Chekhov is famous for—hints of melodrama between the actors’ lines, evoking deep psychologism through an escalation of quotidian drama.

As a theatre performance, The Seagull was a branded failure until it was staged by famous dramaturg Konstantin Stanislavski, father of the influential acting method that encouraged actors to become one with the role by bringing in personal experience, to “feel/fill up” the role in such a way that transcends the distinction of reality and fiction. While Stanislavski thought that this method expressed the emotional potential of Chekhov’s play, boiling under blunt expressions and taciturn looks, Mayer’s film adaptation walks along the same line. The acting performances are fairly theatrical in a Stanislavski-esque sense: attentive physicality, screams in high octaves, and all the characters take turns in bursting into tears. This emotional depiction excavates the subterranean irony which the author himself holds for his own characters.

The emotional drive of the film is ageing theatre star Irina, a pompous, selfish, and fairly overdressed woman who disregards her motherly side, which causes a Freudian dissonance in her son’s neurotic behaviour. Likewise, her younger lover, the self-assured Boris attracts bipolar responses: while Konstantin wants him gone (or killed), Nina is smitten by the writer’s simulacrum of fame. This doubling of relationships narcissistically mirrors both Konstantin and Nina’s ambitions, and we can see the younger couple as a failure-image of Boris and Irina.

In blending its main characters, the film becomes even more claustrophobic. The chronotope is confined between four walls and a lake, all underlying tensions erupt in discording quarrels over carriages and champagne. Mixing up ironic distance, melodramatic outbursts, and exaggerated discomfort, the performances delivered bare witness to the fact that the actors know they are adapting a Chekhov play. Literary scholars point out the self-awareness of Chekhov’s characters, as they know that they are are in a Chekhov play, as in fulfilling a higher purpose of elucidating human inadequacy through class collisions, in the examples of love stories in a rigid social environment. In this way, the discussion of accuracy in adapting dramaturgy to film is muffled, since The Seagull graciously recalls the original text on the level of performance, which is usually the differentiating marker between theatre and film.

Regarding its visuality, the film goes further than a play ever can. While theatre finds dynamic in its stasis, the main features of film remain its movement and time. The persistent deployment of close-up framing, tracking shots, zooms, and pans also establish a visual communication which the written word or two-dimensional stage performance cannot offer. Thus the camera forms relationships, creating and cutting the distance, suggesting words unsaid and silent accusations. It’s almost like an entity which breaks the fourth wall: we are conscious of the metatextuality and translation between mediums.

Which, in fact, should not be perceived as weakness. The Seagull acknowledges its status as a film adaptation and proudly wears its (paper) crown. This is particularly evident in sequences of high emotional voltage: a sequence in which Boris takes Nina out on the lake for a boat ride and tremulous conversation. The bittersweet charm of a nascent love is conveyed solely through out of focus shots, high pitch voices and whispers that swirl and ring in our ears. Close-ups on nervously clutching hands, delicately framed smirks, lip biting: all details overpower the dialogue. This is the “mirror stage”, a formation of Nina’s “I”, as she looks into Boris’ eyes, gulping thirstily his words of a life of the rich and famous. Eventually, her narcissistic drive proves to be self-destructive, yet the aesthetics of a moment added to the original text elucidates the self-reflective properties of Mayer’s reworking.

Since the film itself negotiates a degree of reflexivity, it explores the limits of medium, whether literature or film. This is usually the definition to a critique, and by this rule, The Seagull is critical, faithful to Chekhov’s own soft irony towards class tension and dramatic love. At the same time, there is a lot to be critical about. Firstly, there is the symptomatic absence of Russian cast or crew members; secondly, the Russian-ness of the mise-en-scene is far-fetched and inauthentic, since the decor and props look like second-hand purchases—such cultural inadequacy is irreconcilable when adapting one of the most celebrated texts of Russian Modernism.

Negligence towards tradition is evident in a sequence in which Irina performs a table-song: we hear the folklore instrumental, yet the vocals are a poor translation of something questionably authentic. Thus, what we see, is “a Chekhov” visually deprived of its Russianness, and while this may not be a question of cultural translatability, the film lacks context and even Saoirse Ronan’s splendid performance portraying a bad actress, or Howle’s brilliant Hamlet-Konstantin cannot make up for what’s lost in translation.

Alas, the film’s haptic visuality altered with conventional tropes don’t work in uniform to weave a fully fleshed film world. As far as the question translatability of art goes, this discrepancy serves a methodological purpose: to endorse their differences, to affirm their complementary nature, and to suspend the question of adequacy in adaptation. As it turns out, Chekhov readers will find The Seagull delightful as well as bold, yet it’s likely to leave all other audiences dissatisfied in the demands of a complete cinematic experience.

The Seagull will be showing in UK cinemas from 7th September 2018.

Savina Petkova

By Savina Petkova

Savina Petkova is a PhD student at King’s College London and a regular contributor for Electric Ghost Magazine. She earned her Masters in Film Studies at University College London and has written for MUBI Notebook, Photogénie, Girls on Tops, Screen Queens, Moving Image Artists Journal, and other publications.