'Mademoiselle O' is a French TV movie which, despite its title, is really a rites-of-passage story about a young boy who will grow up to be a great artist. Set in St. Petersburg and a country dacha in Vyra during the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution, with a brief coda in 1930 Montreaux, the film tells the story of Mademoiselle O (no relation to Pauline Reage's heroine), a Swiss teacher (definitely NOT a governess!), who goes East to take charge of the two pre-pubescent scions of a wealthy, liberal family. Mlle O is soon made a figure of fun: obese, pretentious, sentimental, and without a word of Russian. From the off, her charges torment her, especially the film's hero, an unnaturally brilliant, but unlovably arrogant prodigy.
Like all rites-of-passage movies, the film is a string of 'comic' vignettes, showing childhood to be a series of seemingly disparate incidents, which, accumulatively, chart a developing consciousness. While Mlle O tries with ever more pathetic clumsiness to win her employers' affections, civil unrest spills onto the streets, putting the boys' anti-Tsar politician father in danger of his liberty and life.
This setting of a rites-of-passage in a time of historical upheaval is a hackneyed formula - recent examples include 'Empire of the Sun' and 'West Beirut'. Childhood trauma bathed in a nostalgic glow is framed by riot and murder safely stylised by the filmmakers. But this is not just any old rite-of-passage, it is the childhood development of Vladimir Nabokov,and his awakening as an artist.
'Mlle O' is one of Nabokov's most beloved short works, but insufficient in itself to fill out a whole feature. Much in the manner of Patricia Rozema in the later 'Mansfield Park', director Foulon pads the material with references to Nabokov's other works, in particular his memoir 'Speak Memory' (of which 'Mlle O' forms a chapter), but also 'Invitation to a Beheading', 'Bend Sinister', even 'Lolita' (a paedophile uncle), as well as the writer's biography.
This has a number of jarring effects. it decentres Mlle O from her own narrative, and turns her into a figure of caricature. Although the film is glossily nostalgic, it omits much of the biographical context, so unless you know Nabokov's dad was accidentally assassinated some years later, that Nabokovian mixture of poignancy and absurdity is missed. The film is shot in a 'realistic', linear mode with a few perfunctory dream/visionary inserts, antipathetic to the playful, anti-realist Nabokov.
The spirit of 'Mlle O' is missing. The story, and 'Speak Memory' itself, was nostalgia as a deliberate political act, a scrupulous recreation and re-embodying of a history that the Soviet Union sought to eliminate. Further, the story, and the memoir, are part of a dialectic between the mature writer looking back and the developing consciousness he had been, framing a dialogue between past and present. Not only is this dimension absent, but history is inserted in a vulgar, historical-epic way, a colourful backdrop, an intrusion that forces the Nabokovs from their charmed life. In one sequence, there is a grotesquely facile cross-cutting between Nabokov getting sick at a recital of Russian folk songs, and his father's best friend being murdered in the streets by one of the Tsar's horse guards. Such subtlety might be appropriate to a Puzo, but hardly Nabokov.
Having said that, the film does capture the sheer unlikability of the young Nabokov, amply demonstrated in 'Speak Memory', and the shameful marginalisation of his brother - the latter's saying goodbye to Mlle O is quite moving, especially if you've read Michael Wood's book on Nabokov. Too often, we're treated to 'key' scenes, a point-by-point guide to becoming a writer given by his father - don't kill birds; kill butterflies; walk in the grounds of your huge estate/natural park, and commune with nature; tussle with language; meet Tolstoy - although the steely ambiguity of Nabokov-pere's liberalism ('no useless killing': Stalin would have agreed) is more clearly apparent that in his son's idealised portrait. It's a shame a film, even a TV one, should make so little of the magic lantern scene.
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