Voices
Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The seduction of Andrée Seu

A case study in making an evil seem beautiful

Issue: "Between Hell and Hope," Feb. 12, 2011

I saw Doctor Zhivago for the first time in the late '60s and for the final time on Friday. The occasion for our last tryst was flashbacks prompted by uncomfortable resonance between the Russian Revolution of 1917 and our present national paroxysms.

To wit, the scene where the doctor returns from the front to his once opulent home to find it trashed by community organizers who have redistributed his wealth. Humorless apparatchiks reproachfully tell Zhivago that 13 families could have occupied that living space. Zhivago submits meekly. "You're right, this is more just."

The political is not, of course, my affair with this film. I went to see it for the reason every other woman went-to be in love. And there is nothing so romantic as furs in winter and melting ice crystals on windowpanes. Zhivago was a breakthrough movie. Made in 1965, the same year as The Sound of Music, it was the first film to make adultery beautiful.

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I wrote a little post for the blogs confessing that Zhivago had done me more harm than any other film-and all without showing skin. One commenter wrote: "Funny thing about that movie. . . . My parents went to see it at the drive-in theater when it was first released. There, in the car, they decided to divorce."

As a woman now not only surpassing Lara (Komarovsky's betrayed lover) in age but even her mother and looking for holiness, I took pad and paper and started jotting all the elements of David Lean's direction that led to my seduction:

Do not develop the character of Tonya (the wife); make her two­dimensional and vaguely boring. Bring up the Zhivagos' little boy only enough to establish that Zhivago is a good father. This is tricky. Be careful not to overdo these snapshots. You would awaken common sense in the audience. It would dawn on them that Zhivago is no different after all from the deadbeat dads they disdain in the inner city. Then the jig is up.

The last thing you want to do is shift the point of view of the movie from Zhivago and Lara's relationship to the Zhivago family back in Moscow. The viewer must not be allowed to meditate for even a second on what it is like for the boy. No lingering shots of crying himself to sleep, first during the war separation, and later during his father's repeated absences as he goes to Yuriatin to see his illicit lover.

The goal is that the audience should fall in love with the doctor and the mistress, and not only forgive but root for their love affair. This is very difficult to pull off because of natural revulsion against adultery. Do not allow enough exposure of Tonya to create a heart-tie between her and the audience. We need 10 scenes of Lara for every one of Tonya.

Contrive a scene to get rid of Tonya as a character of concern to us. Be deft. Take her out with a letter she sends to her husband that contains the following elements: She has no hard feelings against Zhivago; she has met Lara and Lara is a good person; she and her father (Tonya is not without support) and son are going to Paris for safety, so we can presume she will be fine, even better off than Zhivago. Show Zhivago reacting to the letter with the proper grief, but don't overdo it-five seconds only, to show that he is a good and conflicted man.

Keep the action moving. Allow no time for viewer reflection. Above all, the forces that brought Zhivago and Lara together must be seen as inevitable. Encourage a particular anthropology-that the human heart is passive and not active, that its noblest intentions can be overthrown by a historical juggernaut against which it is hopeless to resist. Show Zhivago and Lara as good people doing their best (they volunteered in the army), struggling valiantly before succumbing to their inescapable fate.

By the time David Lean was done with me, God was a scowling moralist, a pinprick of light in a faraway galaxy. And you would think that all the best things on earth-fields of daffodils, snow-sculpted minarets, and Songs of Songs-were the gifts given under the sun. 

Email aseupeterson@wng.org

Andrée Seu
Andrée Seu

Andrée is the author of three books: Won't Let You Go Unless You Bless Me, Normal Kingdom Business, and We Shall Have Spring Again. Follow Andrée on Twitter @Andreespeterson.

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