Mark Peranson

The talented-artist-as-asshole genre goes down easy with a few shots of vodka in this speculative, muckracking domestic drama about the last decades of the first Russian Nobel laureate, Ivan Bunin. It's seen through the alternately rose- and bile-colored eyes of his devoted wife Vera, who began writing a diary to prevent herself from going mad. The story begins in the pre-Nobel 1930s, as Vera, Ivan, and his mistress Galina loll about as rich, self-imposed exiles in the sunny South of France, swimming and having picnics. Galina, who is framed and photographed to appear more beautiful than Vera, provides the inspiration, while the wife cooks, cleans, and ignores the advances of another émigré author. The film is generating some controversy in Russia for portraying the choleric Bunin as a lecherous bastard who constantly mistreats his wife and descends into drunken madness after Galina leaves the ménage and takes up with a worldly lesbian in Paris. Director Aleksei Uchitel does deal solely with the author's personal life – we hear little of his writing, and what we do hear isn't impressive – but in as scandalous a manner as Henry and June, with a lot less skin. More troublesome is how Uchitel uses history as background fodder, as the outside world assumes importance only when World War II turns the characters into idle poor. At this point the filmmaker's bright canvas predictably darkens, and the petty bourgeois behavior of the whole entourage becomes as crudely frustrating as his subject's has been all along.