Thursday, January 3, 2008
16. Maria's Lovers
The Russian film director Andrei Konchalovsky was born in the late summer of 1937. He became interested in both theater and film early in his life and would begin an extremely noteworthy career in both just after his twentieth birthday. Konchalovsky is a massively important Russian director who was, among other things, a friend and collaborator with the legendary Andrei Tarkovsky. MARIA’S LOVERS is notable not only in that it marks Konchalovsky’s English language film debut but it also marks one of the first English language films ever to be shot by a Russian director.
The Gerard Brach scripted MARIA’S LOVERS focuses on a small American town, just after World War Two, that has been spiritually and emotionally ripped apart. The opening newsreel footage of WW2 vets suffering from Post Traumatic Stress syndrome and general combat fatigue is haunting stuff, and Konchalovsky’s handling of the material immediately alerts the audience that MARIA’S LOVERS is going to be an extremely serious minded piece of work.
The story centers on Ivan, a damaged soldier returning home from the war to his drunken father and his lost love Maria. Ivan, played with a beautifully scarred intensity by John Savage, is struggling with a loss of not just a couple of years of his life but also his soul. Kinski’s Maria is the one thing that got him through the horrors he witnessed and was a part of, but when he returns he finds that she has taken up with another soldier named Al, played well by Vincent Spano.
Everyone in the film seems to be in love with Maria. Ivan’s father, characterized wonderfully by the iconic Robert Mitchum, is obsessed by her as she reminds him of his late wife. A travelling guitar playing stranger, Keith Carradine, becomes equally entranced by her but Maria really only loves Ivan, unfortunately he becomes impotent around her even after they are married.
MARIA’S LOVERS is marked by the remarkably sensitive direction of Konchalovsky, the searing and poetic performance of Kinski and the picture perfect photography of DP Juan Ruiz Anchia. It is a tender and moving portrait of personal alienation and stands as one of the five best films that Nastassja Kinski ever had the chance to appear in.
The film works best in its scenes between Kinski and Savage, as their relationship slips further and further down a hole of doubt, frustration and sexual tension that can’t be satisfied. Savage is remarkable in the film and the internal strife he is experiencing is palatable. The film also soars in the moments Kinski shares with Mitchum. She would speak of his penetrating eyes after making the film and he does stare at her with a kind of desire and longing that is extremely rare for modern English language cinema.
The film falters a bit in that it is perhaps overly ambitious at times. It is questionable whether or not the travelling Carradine was really necessary as it does take away from the main storyline, but his inclusion does give Kinski’s Maria an outlet for the blossoming sexuality that is overtaking her.
It is this repressed sexuality that gives the film its most remarkable scene, involving a tour de force moment with Kinski alone in her bedroom. It is one of the most heartbreakingly erotic and beautifully performed scenes of Nastassja’s career and Konchalovsky’s direction of it is splendidly tasteful without feeling compromised. It is one of Kinski’s great moments where she is confronted just by the camera and her own internal solitude, a solitude that she was able to portray as well as an actor that has ever been filmed.
The film also does a remarkable job at presenting America at one of its most pivotal moments. The fact that it took a Russian director, a French Screenwriter, a Spanish photographer and a German actress to do it makes it all the more incredible. MARIA’S LOVERS is one of the eighties great lost films, and the muted reception that greeted it frankly astounds me to this day.
MARIA’S LOVERS was shot on a relatively low budget in less than two months on location in Pennsylvania and was produced by the Cannon group. Cannon eventually became known as more of an outlet for action films, but for a while with films like this one and LADY CHATTERLY’S LOVER (1982) they were really trying to be a more serious player in the world cinema market.
The film would open across Europe in late 1984 to some acclaim but it was greeted by just mixed reviews and poor box office when it opened in the States in January of 85. Kinski’s wonderfully heartfelt performance as Maria was honored with the coveted Silver Ribbon award from the Italian National Syndicate of Film Journalists and Konchalovsky was nominated for best foreign film director at the 1985 Cesar awards. The Silver Ribbon was a big deal for Kinski as it would mark one of the only times that the critical establishment finally recognized her as the wonderfully effective actress she was.
MARIA’S LOVERS is a really special film and it is absolutely essential for fans of Nastassja Kinski. It is currently available on Region 1 DVD in a fairly good widescreen presentation that unfortunately only includes the trailer as an extra.
Konchalovsky would thankfully be given more attention for his directing skills with his next movie, the very exciting and well made RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). He has since worked in both American and Russian films and is currently working on a production called THE FORBIDDEN CITY with Alec Baldwin.
MARIA’S LOVERS would mark the end to Nastassja’s golden period as a star in America. After shooting HAREM, she would film REVOLUTION which would prove disastrous and she would work almost exclusively in European films for the next decade. When thinking of this I can only agree with Nastassja’s quote concerning her friend Roman Polanski’s exile from the States…”It’s America’s loss.”