A Bet That Goes Wrong

Cp ClassicsViktor Verzhbitsky is convincing in his portrayal of obsessive oligarch Viktor Petrovich.
Classic writer Anton Chekhov lurches into the 21st century, with not entirely convincing results, in Natalya Bronshtein's "The Bet."

  The adaptation is loose enough, particularly in its closing half, but Bronshtein, who is better known as actor Natalya Petrova, follows the basic plot of Chekhov's story "Pari."

A wealthy banker, while entertaining colleagues, initiates a debate as to whether capital punishment is preferable to life imprisonment. A younger employee argues for the latter, against the preference of his employer for the former. The result is a bet -- if the young man can sit out 15 years in total isolation, he is promised a substantial financial reward. If he can't, he will work for free for the banker until the end of his life.

In the latest reworking -- another version was made in the early 1980s by Vladimir Motyl -- we are looking at recognizable oligarch Viktor Petrovich, played very well by Viktor Verzhbitsky, who clearly needs to dominate those around him, so that such a bet comes across as natural. He's of the lean and hungry kind, holed up in a villa in some exclusive enclave, with a wife who's clearly unhappy and a faithful attendant referred to only as Seriy (Sergei Chonishvili).

It's the garden house on the premises that becomes the effective prison for his rival in the bet, Maxim (Vladimir Zherebtsov), initially an attractive and intelligent young man who falls victim to an initial impulsiveness. The result leads him into voluntary captivity and spells the end of his relationship with his fiancО.

His arrival in the enclave and physical proximity leads to complicated relations both with his host's wife -- though only from a distance -- and with the attendant, who delivers his food and all other requests. In the Chekhov original, the hero spends most of his 15 years enlightening himself on the world through books.

In Petrova's film, we look at something else -- the depiction of his gradual descent into something close to madness. Hysterical laughter becomes the keynote, matched by edgy sound design and cinematography that is largely hand-held and nervous -- to an extent that sometimes tires.

It becomes a film about obsession and control, and frequent references to chess as an image of a subtle battle being played out underline that. It's an obsession that grips both sides. Oligarch Petrovich becomes as drawn into the battle as his captive. First his wife departs, then he abandons his business and finally it ruins his health.

What is more elegiac, even Chekhovian, is the sense of abandonment of a specific location -- first, the departure of the wife, then of a serving maid and finally of the faithful attendant. Though differently paced, it's not unlike "The Cherry Orchard," though at the film's end there's no one left except for the two sparring partners. The struggle between the two opponents seems -- though Bronshtein leaves this intentionally unclear -- to have claimed them both, and if the final scene has any serenity, it appears to be the serenity only of death, which is certainly born out by the successful use of a classical music soundtrack.

Such serenity may not be shared by viewers, given that at only 85 minutes the film still seems too long, and camerawork occasionally becomes irritating. Its final message may be about the emptiness of lives -- first in the business world, then in a private world. The film catches something of that, at the risk of becoming rather empty itself.