For anyone planning to celebrate Anton Chekhov's 100th Anniversary this year, Four Funny Families is a must-see. Resurrecting characters from the famous Russian's four major plays, writer/director V. Ulea puts them all together in this unique movie. Although Ulea's creative homage may leave viewers who are not Chekhov fans more than a bit puzzled, she deserves credit for her highly imaginative approach to filmmaking.
In Ulea's unusual film, families from Uncle Vanya, The Cherry Orchard, Three Sisters and The Seagull live together in a furniture store they jointly own. Each family resides in a separate section of the store, but they all come together for a wild party where seduction, scandal, unrequited love, and rivalry flow as freely as the vodka. Later, when a fire threatens their home, the families start thinking about the future. In true Chekovian fashion, although they talk about how much they love their residence, they seem to consider it a big burden and wish they could get rid of their responsibilities. Because of their sloth, idleness and inability to develop, they're certainly not people to admire.
However, by bringing Chekhov's oh-so human characters to life on screen, Ulea succeeds in demonstrating her new interpretation of comedy. She replaces the traditional plot-oriented comedy structure with one based on character potential and the overall actions of the characters. According to Michael Zubarev, who served not only as the film's producer but also as its editor/cinematographer, the goal of the movie was "to follow Chekhov's own definition of these plays as comedy rather than their traditional interpretation as drama/tragedy."
Zubarev adds that Chekov himself viewed the actions of his characters as comical. Although I can't help thinking how difficult it is to accept a play like The Seagull as the farce Chekov intended, especially since it ends with a suicide, I'm not eager to argue with filmmaker Ulea. After all, she's an expert who's researched and analyzed Chekhov's plays with scholarly aplomb. (Ulea's real name is Vera Zubarev, Ph.D, and she's a professor at the University of Pennsylvania.)
As with any ambitious production, some things work, others don't. Irene Frenkel's artworks displayed throughout are absolutely stunning, and some of the actors stand out among the large ensemble cast which includes actors from Philadelphia, New York, Canada, and Ukraine. Making her film debut in Four Funny Families, the prominent Ukrainian actress Elena Kuklova commands the screen in her few scenes as, surprise, an elegant dramatic actress. Mauri Walton, playing Nina of The Seagull family, is wonderfully photogenic and appealing. And I liked Michael Zubarev. Yes, in addition to producing, editing and doing the cinematography, he portrayed Treplev -- and a very natural and unaffected performance it is. It's also a treat to see the versatile Ulea play one of the roles (Natasha) in her film.
But here's the bad news. Perhaps because Ulea knows so much about Chekhov, she neglects to include enough background information to help all viewers fully understand and enjoy her film. Much of what happens comes across as jumbled and confusing. And the four-square screen technique may have seemed a good idea at the time, but I found it annoying. (Granted, I'm not a split-screen type of person; I even hate its use on 24, my favorite TV series.)
Four Funny Families may not be perfect, but it's an extraordinary cinematic project that proves one of Russia's most important playwrights is as relevant in 2004 as he was a century ago. Happy anniversary, Anton Chekhov!
(Released by Ulita Productions; not rated by MPAA.)
Listen to V. Ulea discuss her films by clicking on this BlogTalkRadio link.