The Kreutzer Sonata

Having made a film about Beethoven ("Immortal Beloved"), and another based on a Tolstoy story starring Danny Huston ("Ivansxtc"), helmer Bernard Rose mashes all these elements together in "The Kreutzer Sonata," with decidedly mixed results.

Having made a film about Beethoven (“Immortal Beloved”), and another based on a Tolstoy story starring Danny Huston (“Ivansxtc”), helmer Bernard Rose mashes all these elements together in “The Kreutzer Sonata,” with decidedly mixed results. Pic stars Huston as a rich philanthropist who works himself up into a jealous rage over his ivory-tinkling wife (Elisabeth Rohm); despite hot sex scenes early on, it offers a chilly, somewhat interesting but ultimately overlong analysis of a contempo marriage. Niche-bound chamber piece will struggle for auds’ eyes and ears.

Tolstoy may have meant his 1889 novella to be seen as a morality tale illustrating the dangers of overexalting “carnal love,” even within marriage. But since then, it’s often been read perversely, in every sense, against the author’s intended grain. Although the text is hardly explicit, its frankness about the mere existence of sex got it banned in both Russia and the U.S. not long after its publication. There have been at least four film adaptations so far, the most recent an execrable 2006 Swiss version called “What Is Love?,” which looked much like a luxury-car commercial made for pan-European broadcast.

Rose’s version transplants the story to an equally wealthy but more bohemian Southern Californian milieu. Divorced Edgar (Danny Huston) meets sultry, neurotic classical pianist Abby (Elisabeth Rohm, TV’s “Law & Order”) at a dinner party. Even though Abby is dating someone else, she meets Edgar for a tryst that very night. Soon, the two start getting it on regularly for choppily edited sex montages (copious shots of pumping buttocks, bondage games and cunnilingus may earn the pic an NC-17 rating Stateside).

Three or four years later, Edgar and Abby are married with two kids and a stylish Beverly Hills mansion. But it hasn’t been an easy ride: Abby is restless and misses her career. Perhaps subconsciously willing disaster on himself, Edgar urges her to perform with handsome male violinist Aiden (Matthew Yang King) for an upcoming charity event at their house.

They plan to perform Beethoven’s Sonata No. 9 in A Major, the so-called “Kreutzer Sonata,” a notoriously tricky piece. One character observes that its piano-violin interplay is like a fervid dance or, more ominously, a seduction. The more Abby and Aidan rehearse together, the more Edgar becomes convinced they’re having an affair. Tragedy ensues.

Convincing chemistry between Huston and Rohm in the pic’s first half gets supplemental zing from their improvised dialogue, as they swap childhood stories and other memories between bouts in bed. (It’s irritating, then, that Rose relies so heavily on Huston’s voiceover narration to tell us what his character is thinking. Despite the contempo argot, a lot of Edgar’s musings and speeches by other characters are surprisingly faithful in spirit to Tolstoy’s original, such as when a misogynist cab driver rants about how women control men.

It would be wrong to read the film itself as misogynist; at best, it’s a dissection of twisted male desire, one told entirely (and necessarily) from a guy’s point-of-view. But this also means poor Abby must remain a cipher whom Edgar admits he barely understands at all.

However, the pic ultimately doesn’t have anything original to say about lust, jealousy or the mores of the haute bourgeois. Second half feels dragged-out as we wait for the inevitable (opening scene has Edgar phoning the police with bloody hands), while the editing continually replays the scene of Abby and Aiden performing the Kreutzer Sonata.

At least the music’s good, which is more than can be said for Rose’s own dingy lensing. Pic looks as though it were made even more cheaply than “Ivansxtc,” with a concomitant drop in technical standards.

The Kreutzer Sonata

  • Production: An Animadala, Giant Door production, in association with Independent Film Co. (International sales: Independent, London.) Produced by Naomi Despres, Lisa Enos. Executive producer, Lisa Henson. Co-producer, Angela Robinson. Directed, edited by Bernard Rose. Screenplay, Lisa Enos, Rose, based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Rose; sound (Dolby Digital), Alexandra Daniels; sound designer, Nigel Holland. Reviewed on DVD, Edinburgh, June 26, 2008. (In Edinburgh Film Festival -- Directors' Showcase.) Running time: 99 MIN.
  • With: <b>With:</b> Danny Huston, Elisabeth Rohm, Matthew Yang King, Anjelica Huston.