The wrapping suggests something more prestigious: a period drama that examines class and the violent lengths people would go to to preserve honor in the 19th century, perhaps. Set in amongst the gold-encrusted ballrooms and mud-slopped streets of Tsarist St. Petersburg, Alexey Mizgirev’s The Duelist is the tale of Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov), a loner nobleman and former soldier who duels other high society-dwellers for cash. Yakovlev isn’t quite who he claims to be, however, a fact that brings the power-hungry Count Beklemishev (played by sometime Hollywood baddie-for-hire Vladimir Mashkov) and young debutante Princess Marfa (Yuliya Khlynina) into his orbit.
It could be the synopsis for an old-fashioned epic, but in reality, The Duelist is a handsomely-mounted Russian soap in period clothing, complete with dubious plotting, thin characterization and beautiful cardboard stars. The film is also strangely juvenile for one so carefully sculpted. From the first scene, wherein Yakovlev dispatches a rival duelist with a bullet to the head point-blank, the period weaponry is shot with a fetishistic admiration, with the violence these weapons bring frequently being as gratuitous as that of a typical ’80s Stallone vehicle. The film presents itself as an ornate historical drama about duelling nobles, but it has the heart of a lunk-headed action movie.
Mizgirev at least shoots with a flair absent from most actioners. The Duelist was only the third Russian production to be filmed entirely in IMAX, so it’s unsurprising to find so much attention lavished on the visuals. The edit is generous: where the worst of Hollywood action cinema is now just a clumsy series of rapid cuts, Mizgirev refreshingly gives us time to bask in the opulence of his world. The director’s Steadicam gets a workout, floating through interiors decorated to within an inch of their life, with chandeliers and drapes and cavernous rooms colored a contrast of black, white and gold. With a small army of extras and some highly detailed sets, the background of The Duelist is always teeming with life. Which is ironic, considering our main characters are seemingly so devoid of it.
No matter how pretty, films that skimp on the human drama almost always begin to drag before long. So it goes with The Duelist. The movie is so pleasant to look at that your attention is held to a point, but the film’s characters fatally lack any discernible personality, something which isn’t rectified by a cast lacking in real heavyweights. Mashkov and a slimy Martin Wuttke, as Yakovlev’s shady German employer, acquit themselves well enough, but nobody else manages to overcome how underwritten the figures they’re playing are.
Mizgirev tries to add an element of tragedy to Yakovlev’s backstory, but the character is such a nonentity – played as he is by an emotionless Fyodorov – that we never recognize him as a real person to sympathize with in the first place. Meanwhile, the late-in-the-movie dalliance Yakovlev shares with Khlynina’s Marfa is built on nothing more than the fact they are the two most beautiful people in the film, and so are expected to naturally gravitate toward one another.
It’s certainly not a romance built on chemistry, especially not when the actors are trading such dialogue. “My mother was very beautiful…until she died,” Yakovlev bluntly tells the Princess, shortly before he forces himself upon her in a somewhat troubling love scene. His is a unique method of seduction only slightly more ill-advised than Beklemishev’s own, who himself whisperingly romanticizes Marfa with a gentle, “for the sake of my love for you, I will kill anyone…even you.” Such cringe-inducing writing wouldn’t be quite so hard to swallow if the film were going for deliberately tacky fun. Instead, it’s all totally self-serious.
On a more positive note, the duel sequences are well-choreographed, and there are some impressively visceral scenes of hand-to-hand combat. A flashback to Yakovlev’s almost mystical origin on the Aleutian Islands, revived by Aleut natives from a shipwreck then forced to brutally defend his unarmed body from murderous thieves, even recalls Inarritu’s The Revenant in its brutally spiritual sweep. When the film eschews the talk, it holds up better.
The Duelist isn’t deep enough for the viewer to attempt to draw meaning from beneath its glam surface, but it’s still interesting to watch the film as a look at where Russia is at as a nation. It captures how the country (and its cinema) is currently torn between the old way and the new, glamorizing as it does both hardscrabble aspirates and the lifestyles of the wealthy, privileged few.
The film also, through Beklemishev and his sinister German-speaking accomplices, features a German conspiracy to destabilize Russian authority at a time when Germany is suspiciously viewed within the country as an enemy seeking to impose its own values on the world. Which is to say, in a nutshell, that The Duelist is more interesting as a reflection of the Russian sociopolitical climate today than it is as an actual goddamn movie.
Gorgeously empty, The Duelist is more interesting as a reflection of the Russian sociopolitical climate today than it is as an actual goddamn movie.