The Duelist (“Дуэлянт”) (Aleksey Mizgirev, 2016)
A very silly, if often dramatically effective, confection of a 19th-century period thriller, the new Russian movie The Duelist gives us the violent action promised by its title embedded in a story of revenge that takes its cue from the adventures of the great French author Alexander Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo). Best when it avoids excess sentimentality, the movie starts out especially well with a series of duels in which a mysterious nobleman, Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov, Stalingrad) hires himself out to those who wish to avenge their honor without putting themselves at risk. A dead shot, he wins every time, carefully following the proper dueling code (the film even opens with a series of on-screen titles that explain parts of those guidelines) to avoid prosecution. As a mercenary, he is viewed with contempt by those whom he serves; as a man possessed, he doesn’t care. Something drives him to kill. Rest assured that the reason is revealed in the second act.
Mostly well acted – Fyodorov is compelling, as is Vladimir Mashkov (The Thief) as his eventual nemesis – and made with high production value, The Duelist only really falters in its final section, where the hero’s will is tested by his love for a noblewoman in peril. Their emoting feels out of place in the otherwise stark narrative, and their sex scene (bordering on rape) – in a carriage, in broad daylight, blinds not drawn, with gratuitous nudity, in the middle of St. Petersburg! – is possibly the most ridiculous thing in the film. Fortunately, romantic melodrama and all, the ending is still satisfying, even if derivative of most tales of revenge that have come before. Be forewarned that it is a very bloody affair, however, so be prepared to look away if the sight of red nauseates you.
It’s nice to see that such enjoyable frivolities can come out of a nation most cinematically associated with the weighty films of Sergei Eisenstein, Andrei Tarkovsky, and others. There are no grand metaphysics here, just a series of (sometimes overwrought) plot threads in service of a rollicking good time. Speaking of all the blood, one big difference from The Duelist‘s earlier Soviet cousins is its near obsession with the idea of nobility as defined by one’s DNA (which in this film they just call “blood”). Russia’s Revolution of 1917 may have led to the death of the Tsars and execution or expulsion of its aristocrats, but 100 years later, some folks seems to want to romanticize the lost past. Perhaps it’s all part of Vladimir Putin’s to make Russia great again. Whatever its larger cultural agenda, if any, The Duelist is a lot of fun, until it’s not (but then it’s fun again). See it as I did, with zero expectations, and you’ll enjoy it even more.