The Soul of Liberal Guilt in Please Give and Chekhov Done Right in The Duel


Nicole Holofcener’s fourth feature, Please Give, is a notable rebound from the insufficiently examined self-absorption of her last, Friends With Money. Please Give is not quite Lovely & Amazing—Holofcener’s mordant, quasi-autobiographical “three sisters” spin—but it is, for the most part, witty and engrossing.

Kate (Catherine Keener) and Alex (Oliver Platt) are bourgeois grave-robbers, stocking their West Village “vintage furniture” store with mid-20th-century pieces bought from the distracted children of the recently dead. (The haughty attitude of the proprietors meets its match in the suspicion of their customers as to the value—or provenance—of the goods.) Elaborating on their ghoulish realpolitik, the couple has purchased the apartment next door and is only waiting for its 91-year-old inhabitant, Andra (Ann Guilbert), to expire so that they might expand their domain.

Holofcener’s humorous interest in yupscale entitlement and its discontents mark her as a descendant of Woody Allen—indeed, she served as apprentice editor on Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen’s most self-consciously Chekhovian piece as well as a movie her stepfather produced. Holofcener grew up in a Woody milieu (urban, insular, secular humanist); her relationship comedies, like those of kindred filmmaker Noah Baumbach, are largely predicated on class cluelessness and family miscommunication.

Kate and Alex have a chubby, zit-plagued adolescent daughter, Abby (Sarah Steele); Andra is looked after by her two grown grandchildren, dutiful Rebecca (Rebecca Hall), a lonely radiology technician, and selfish Mary (Amanda Peet), who administers facials in a storefront spa. Briefly brought together to celebrate Andra’s birthday, the two families merge with and mirror each other in unexpected ways.

Please Give is neither as unsentimental as it sounds, nor as sentimental as it might have been. The movie is filled with banter, typically concerned with three subjects (money, old age, life in New York). Holofcener can seem as glib as Nora Ephron or Nancy Meyers, but she has a far more acute sense of human neediness. The quasi-autobiographical Lovely & Amazing would be famous alone for the scene in which Emily Mortimer’s aspiring actress stands naked before a lover (and the camera) asking him to critique her physical flaws until, amply cued, he finally validates her specific body issue.

The montage of women undergoing mammograms that opens Please Give shows a similar sensitivity to female self-image, as does Holofcener’s compassionate sense of Abby’s ugly-duckling plight. Generally, however, Holofcener is a stronger writer than director, with a greater gift for riffs than characterization. Her strongest comic creation is Andra, played by Guilbert (Fran Drescher’s grandmother on The Nanny) as an irascible, ignorant, self-assured sourpuss, stubbornly ungracious (“Don’t do me any favors”), ridiculously confident (“People thought I was a schoolteacher”), and horrifyingly imperious as when she calls on the building super to adjust her TV reception.

That poor, plain Rebecca loves her grandmother and mean, beautiful Mary hates her gives Hall and Peet everything they need to develop their characters. Not so for the reliably estimable Keener, who has appeared in all four Holofcener features. Hers is the toughest part: Kate is a canny business operator paradoxically cursed with a bleeding heart. She criticizes Abby’s nascent consumerism and compulsively presses cash on local homeless people (and inevitably assumes that a middle-aged black guy waiting outside a restaurant is a street person). Like a Chekhov character, Kate is meant to have soul.

Celebrants of the bourgeoisie love Chekhov in part because he dignifies the inconsequential lives of a superfluous class. There’s more than that; as noted by Vladimir Nabokov, Chekhov wrote sad books that “only a reader with a sense of humor can really appreciate.” But the sad-funny-superfluous thing is tricky for Americans—especially American independent filmmakers who, unlike Russian intellectuals, are anything but ineffectual. Their protagonists are more typically strivers, like Kate.

Super-competent Kate is too sensitive for the volunteer social work she imagines she should perform, but there’s nothing dreamy about her yearning or charming in her weakness. Her liberal guilt is about as convincing as Holofcener’s—which may be an example of the movie’s perverse honesty.

Coincidentally, the master himself has a new movie this week, although—as faithfully adapted from the original novella by Mary Bing and crisply paced by Israeli director Dover Koshashvili—Anton Chekhov’s The Duel comes about as close to soap-opera passion as the virtuoso of wistful lethargy is likely to get.

Perhaps “comic opera” is the operative term: Adultery, betrayal, blackmail, drunken antics, and all manner of peculiar impulse behavior enliven the summery indolence of a Black Sea backwater. Laevsky (Andrew Scott), an agitated, intellectual young wastrel, is frantically attempting to ditch Nadia (Fiona Glascott), the vain, lazily bovine married woman whom, in a paroxysm of “back to the land”–ism, he persuaded to run away with him to the wilds of the Caucasus.

Laevsky and Nadia are perfectly ill-matched in their respective inability to cope with crisis. As the discarded mistress becomes increasingly lost, her disheveled lover grows hysterically dissolute. Meanwhile, their tragicomic floundering is observed by three professionals—a contemptuous zoologist with a particular animus for Laevsky; the kindly, if dimwitted, town doctor; and a timid deacon—each of whom embodies a particular moral position. The largely verbal drama is played out over a series of comic social disasters to climax with the eponymous affaire d’honneur—at once the height of irrationality and, as emotional fire meets intellectual ice, the logical culmination of the movie’s ongoing narrative argument.

An American production, shot in English on the Croatian coast with a mainly Anglo-Irish cast, The Duel is intelligently staged and impeccably crafted. Although co-producer Donald Rosenfeld is a long-time Merchant Ivory associate, this potentially middlebrow exercise is neither anemic nor unduly genteel. The period atmosphere is sensuous; the postcard setting feels lived-in. Koshashvili, whose 2001 Late Marriage was a superbly volatile generational farce, gives the Masterpiece Theater tradition a welcome zetz.

Like Late Marriage, The Duel features a memorable female turn, although here one of transcendent passivity. Glascott’s Nadia is a foamy cocktail of rosy cheeks, ruby lips, overflowing bodice . . . and numbing affect. Yet, thanks to Glascott’s ineffable sadness, this vulgar creature, too, has a soul—maybe even a Russian soul. In any case, The Duel is the most successful literary adaptation I’ve seen since Pascal Ferran’s 2006 Lady Chatterley.