At the center of Rafaël Ouellet’s new film, Gurov and Anna, is a literary self-reflexivity. Modeled on a short story by Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog, an English teacher begins a torrid affair with his beautiful and troubled student. The film’s style adopts the artificial but poignant prose of Chekhov by challenging both conventions of likeability and pleasure, while it delves into the darker side of lust and desire.
As Ben (Andreas Apergis) stands with his shoulders slumped forward early on in Gurov and Anna, it feels like he is a man trodden down by the burden of normality, but he increasingly seems like a man defeated by his own ego. Still handsome, with blue eyes that seem to cut through people — in particular women — the wear of age has only just begun to creep on his imposing presence. The contrast between his commanding, if not self-ascribed emasculated patriarch, and the object of his adulterous affection (Sophie Desmarais as Mercedes) makes for a striking image. Where Ben is imposing and defeated, Mercedes is petite and glowing. For all the greyness of his age, she is full of color. Yet, Mercedes is not without sin — her behavior is erratic, attention-seeking and manipulative, but youth often seems to excuse the small level neurosis. As the characters find themselves increasingly entangled in each other’s lives, beauty is cast aside for ugliness, and their strained relationship becomes distant and more obsessive.
The setting of this doomed affair is a wintry Montreal. For those who travel in particular crowds and areas, Gurov and Anna feels uncomfortably familiar. The rooms and bars all seem crowded with objects of little consequence, bathed in low level warm lighting. Deceptively welcoming, these interiors betray the coldness of the city and the people who inhabit it. Perhaps exaggerated for greater thematic resonance, these spaces embody a contemporary Montreal in a way few Quebec filmmakers have managed to achieve. This is also in strong part to the effortless bilingualism of the film’s script, which holds a mirror up to a generation of Montrealers who have found some peace in multilingualism, but who have little sense of reconciliation with their overwhelming sense of alienation.
If Gurov and Anna resembles any recent film, it’s without a doubt Alex Ross Perry’s vibrant Listen Up Philip (2014). Both films share a literary base, and a boundless sense of irony that breaks down the unhappy associations of a literate style somehow being un-cinematic. Both filmmakers play with the image by exasperating and refuting the careful words of dialogue and narration with frames of brutality and contradiction.
Gurov and Anna toys with perceptions and ultimately gives into both cynicism and brutality. While not for the faint of heart, Ouellet’s film offers a pointed portrait of obsession and ego, and a thundering challenge to audiences and critics alike.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies, and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she is the film editor of Sound on Sight and a freelance writer.