Bernard Rose‘s The Kreuzer Sonata might be the best cinematic treatment of insidious, corrosive, and ultimately self-destructive sexual jealousy that I have seen recently. Based on Leo Tolstoy‘s 1889 novella, and part of a trilogy of Tolstoy-adaptations by Rose–I have not seen his Anna Karenina and Ivan’s XTC yet, but I intend to–the film belongs to the transposition genre; it sets Tolstoy’s story of 19th century Russia in 21st century Los Angeles. The locale changes; the plot details are modified in response accordingly, but the essential component of the lurid sexual imagination–made more feverish by imagined infidelity–is faithfully preserved. Rose’s rendering has the visual look and feel of a low-budget quasi-cinema-verite production in both its dark color palettes and camera work; the dialogue is often clipped and overlapping, and thus unfailingly rings true. These elements of Rose’s style combine to give the Rise and Fall of Marriage Founded on Carnal Love the feeling of a terrifying headlong rush toward the final, inevitable, tragic denouement.
In Tolstoy’s story, the narrator repels and fascinates us as we realize his jealousy is grounded in his own uncomfortable positioning of sex within his self: he is unable to shake loose its demands on him, and yet repelled by his response to it. His wife is sullied by her acceptance of his sexual desires but her rejection would have enraged him; so from the very beginning he despises his wife even as he makes love to her. Caught in this bind, he is an easy mark for the green-eyed monster. Without exaggeration, Tolstoy’s story was about sex–talked about, referred to, and obsessed over–but in the context of that tale never made explicit in its pages (Tolstoy’s treatment was still explicit enough to get the novella banned in Russia and–briefly–in the US). In the cinematic version, the sex is explicit, frank, and center-stage; it makes clear precisely what the husband is fantasizing about. This is what his wife did before him with other men; this is what she did with him; this is what she now does with her ‘new lover’. The husband’s obsessions are made worse, of course, because the sexual component of their monogamous, child-producing, buzz-killing relationship is in terminal decline; this precipitous fall is neatly paired off with a correspondingly dizzying rise in his obsessive desires to control her sexual being, to know her more than he had ever wanted, or is ever possible in this world of ours.
Rose has pulled off the rather neat trick of making Tolstoy’s story more relevant for our times by his adaptation: Tolstoy’s original narrator made himself distant by his idiosyncratic, religiously-inspired, crankish attitude toward sex; but Rose’s central character is worldly, sophisticated, even sexually powerful in his attractions and charms. He is not asexual, reluctantly drawn into its sordid embrace; he is an active player in the sexual arena, one who conquers frequently and successfully. And yet, he is ultimately defeated by its unique challenges. Tolstoy’s central character always appeared ill-equipped for the challenges of the sexual relationship; what leaves us shaken about Rose’s pseudo-hero is that even one so apparently strong is humbled by the seemingly-perennially paired companions of sex and jealousy.