At a picturesque, remote estate in turn of the century Russia, a jovial physician, Nikolai (Nikita Mikhalkov) recounts an indelicate tale – momentarily stopping to inspect his reflection on a silver carafe – of his truncated courtship of a young woman named Ksyusha Kalitina following an embarrassing encounter with the deaf, elderly nurse at the Kalitin home after the diligent woman wandered into his room by mistake and proceeded to treat him for a nonexistent gastrointestinal ailment – an unusual greeting that he nevertheless accommodated under the presumption that she must be performing some eccentric family custom. It is a lighthearted and carefree atmosphere that sets the seemingly idyllic and humorous tone of the film as several guests arrive at the manor of an aristocratic widow named Anna Petrovna Voynitseva (Antonina Shuranova) for a weekend retreat. However, the polite and cordial exchanges invariably prove to be a facade as Anna and Nikolai alternately comment on the apparent weight gain of a middle-aged schoolteacher and armchair philosopher (and Anna’s occasional lover) named Mikhail Vasilyevich Platonov (Aleksandr Kalyagin) and his wife, Nikolai’s sister Alexandra (Yevgeniya Glushenko), having settled into an isolated, uneventful life in the country for the extended winter. It is a deceptive charade of manners and feigned pleasantries that is further tested when, having learned that Anna’s coddled and petulant stepson Sergei (Yuri Bogatyryov), had recently married, Mikhail’s initial celebration and approval of the martial union turns to anxiety upon discovering that Sergei’s new bride, Sophia (Yelena Solovey), was a former lover – an awkward and painfully protracted reunion that inevitably compels him to re-evaluate the course of his unremarkable life and unrealized ambition.
Evoking the tenor of an Anton Chekhov comic tragedy (from whose works, including the unfinished play Platonov, the original screenplay for the film was inspired), An Unfinished Piece for a Player Piano is an understatedly elegant, poignant, and compassionate articulation of personal disappointment, mediocrity, emotional resignation, and regret. Nikita Mikhalkov retains the formalism and insularity of a theatrical chamber drama and integrates neoexpressionist elements of sharply contrasting mise-en-scene (particularly between interior and exterior spaces) and stylized lighting that symbolically reflect the emotional crises that exist beneath the polite, anecdotal conversations and philosophical abstractions of a socially irrelevant, narcissistic, and self-imploding privileged, idle class: the alternate lighting of Mikhail and Sophia as they discreetly meet beneath the staircase; the initial, underlit shot of the dining room that reinforces the outmoded values and social roles of the invited guests; the blue, monochromatic hues of their evening encounter by the lake; the advent of fireworks that punctuates Sergei’s acknowledged presence; Mikhail and Alexandra’s walk alongside the ebb and flow of the water. In the end, Mikhalkov presents the twilight of an obsolete culture through a perceptively Chekhovian interweaving of humor, pathos, and nostalgia, and in the process, creates a timeless, universal, and profoundly humanist portrait of forgiveness, reconciliation, and acceptance of human frailty.
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