‘Three Sisters’ (‘Les Trois Soeurs’): Film Review

French actress-filmmaker Valeria Bruni Tedeschi tackles the much-produced Chekhov drama.

In the first feature she has directed but not starred in, actress Valeria Bruni Tedeschi takes on one of the modern stage’s most enduring vehicles for actresses, Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Shaving off a good deal of plot and setting the action against some iffy selections of contemporary pop music, the film is more than handsome enough for the TV release it got in France and showcases some solid performances. But while scholars of the play may be curious to see a new cinematic take, newcomers will have a hard time with its occasionally incoherent presentation of the tale; beyond some special engagements, a Stateside theatrical release seems unlikely.

With co-writer Noemie Lvovsky, Tedeschi trims more than a third of the play — this is well under two hours, compared to the three hours of Austin Pendleton’s recent New York production — and takes some liberties with its specifics. (Instead of posing for a group photo, for instance, characters marvel at projections of early movies.) Central plotlines — two soldiers’ rivalry for the youngest sister’s affections; the more complex battle for another’s heart; the household encroachments of a pushy daughter-in-law — are easy to follow in what remains, and the overall scene is undisturbed: Sisters Olga, Masha and Irina, whose father died a year before the story begins, play hosts over several years to Russian military officers stationed nearby, forming a tiny community far from the Moscow they dream of.

The Bottom Line

Newbies won’t understand why this play has endured for more than a century.

But in this slimmed-down reading, long episodes of housebound get-togethers crumble into disjointed exchanges, and much of the light mockery characters direct at each other becomes puzzling, even inexplicable. Amid the fragmentation, the only sister who really gets her due is Irina (relative newcomer Georgia Scalliet) — thanks not just to her importance to several supporting characters’ stories, but to a performance lively enough the film can’t de-emphasize it with inattention, as it does the more internal struggles of Masha and Olga.

Three Sisters is a drama, and one with a fairly bleak ending, but Tedeschi hopes to brighten it, employing several clips of lite chanson on the soundtrack. Elsewhere, she uses the Lou Reed/John Cale song “Smalltown” not once but twice. While French auds who don’t speak English wouldn’t care, the specificity of the lyrics’ references to Andy Warhol’s boyhood distracts from the drama without adding any new layer of meaning in exchange.

The young outsider in that song ached to flee the provincial town he was in, to remake himself as an artist in the city. Some of the sisters in Tedeschi’s Les Trois Soeurs may yet escape this mansion in the hinterlands, but we have only the faintest idea what their dreams for that afterlife may be.

Venue: Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
Production companies: ARTE France, La Comedie-Francaise, AGAT Films & Cie, Ad Vitam
Cast: Florence Viala, Elsa Lepoivre, Georgia Scalliet, Stephane Varupenne, Coraly Zahonero, Michel Vuillermoz, Gilles David, Eric Ruf
Director: Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Screenwriters: Noemie Lvovsky, Valeria Bruni Tedeschi
Producers: Alexandra Henochsberg, Marie Balducchi, Patrick Sobelman
Director of photography: Simon Beaufils
Production designer: Emmanuelle Duplay
Costume designer: Caroline de Vivaise
Editor: Anne Weil

In French

Not rated, 109 minutes