Director: Aleksei Mizgirev
Stars: Martin Wuttke, Yuri Kolokolnikov, Vladimir Mashkov
An adventure film, with dramatic and thriller elements set against the backdrop of palaces and the noble view of the Russian capital, The Duelist centers on Yakovlev, a retired officer, who returns to St. Petersburg from a long exile. While in the city, he fights as a duelist's representative. (Nineteenth-century Russian duel law allowed for a duelist to be replaced by any one person.) Though Yakovlev fights for money, he also seeks honor and revenge against those who disgraced him, therein, challenging the Russian Providence. Yakovlev fearlessly plays with destiny as an example of traditional romantic characters from the Russian Classics.
Aleksei Mizgirev’s fourth feature-length film, The Duelist, differs significantly from what the director’s rather cineaste audience has seen before. Set in St Petersburg in 1860, the film is a contemporary version of a historical drama and costume film, with an action-driven plot and abundant cinematic effects. Although the IMAX spectacle is intended as up-to-date genre cinema made in Russia, it nevertheless adumbrates the auteur style of directing that Mizgirev pursued in his previous films, Hard-Hearted (Kremen’, 2007), Buben, Baraban (2009) and The Convoy (Konvoi, 2012). First, The Duelist echoes the gloomy urban landscapes characteristic for Mizgirev’s films about contemporary Russia; and second, the nineteenth-century characters are plunged into questions and problems which seem to matter still today. Whether auteur style or genre cinema—Mizgirev’s films reflect the director’s general interest in human behavior, in questions concerning personality and social environment, in honor and dignity as central moments of individual identity.
The story revolves around the professional duelist Iakovlev, who is hired by a mercenary German baron in order to stand in for others in duels. The practice of dueling, in nineteenth-century Russia an illegal but prevalent way to settle disputes and slights against honor between noblemen, was regulated by strict rules. One of them, as we are told right at the beginning of the film, stipulated the possibility of a substitute. In this role the protagonist, a handsome but glowering young man, wins duel after duel. This draws the nobility’s attention to the mysterious duelist, who has recently returned to St Petersburg and whose identity is revealed bit by bit as the story unfolds. Soon Iakovlev finds out that all duels, for which he was hired, were arranged by the cold-hearted, nefarious Count Beklemishev in order to get rid of his creditors. At the same time Iakovlev himself becomes entangled in an intrigue initiated by Beklemishev, involving the idealistic young Prince Tuchkov and his beautiful sister, Princess Marfa. When Iakovlev takes sides with the Tuchkovs, it becomes clear that—apart from feeling attracted by the blonde Princess Marfa himself—Iakovlev has an agenda of his own.
Iakovlev’s identity is revealed in several flashbacks. Running ashore on the Aleutian Islands as an ordinary soldier of the Tsarist army, he was rescued and cured by an Aleutian shaman who foretold him immortality. An offspring of the old noble Kolychev family, he fell victim to one of Beklemishev’s intrigues five years ago. As a young lieutenant he was provoked and offended by Beklemishev in front of St Petersburg’s nobility. The young man’s sense of honor suffered severe consequences. Beklemishev initiated Kolychev’s suspension from the Tsarist army as well as his deprivation of peerage, which drove Kolychev’s mother to commit suicide. After being flogged, he was sent to the Aleutian Islands as an ordinary soldier. There he took the identity of the late nobleman Iakovlev in order to be allowed to duel the man responsible for his misfortune, which would, besides taking revenge, enable him to restore his honor.
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