An Ordinary Execution (Une exécution ordinaire)
France (2010) Dir. Marc Dugain
The phrase “victim of one’s success” may seem like an oxymoron since success is usually regarded to being positive, but as history has shown us success brings as much opportunities for a downfall as it does the expectant rewards.
An adaptation of his own 2007 novel of the same name, Marc Dugain brings us an example of such a scenario based around the oppressive austerity of 1950’s Stalinist Russia. Anna Atlina (Marina Hands) is an urologist based in Moscow and married to scientist Vasilli (Edouard Baer) in what is a happy but childless marriage. Anna has a special skill known as “Healing Hands” which enables her to deter any suffering without physical contact, earning her a favourable reputation among patients and disdain from her colleagues.
One night Anna is escorted away from her surgery and taken to the Kremlin where, after a long wait, she is taken in to meet Josef Stalin (André Dussollier). Not wishing to be seen as weak in public, Stalin confides in Anna his mystery ailment and demands she treats him. After a successful first session, Stalin insists Anna be his personal doctor whenever he needs her but absolute secrecy is imperative, putting immense pressure on Anna’s personal and professional life.
The simplicity of the storyline is juxtaposed with the silent intensity of the plight of Anna, through the powerful lead performances and the unseen increase in pressure under which a lesser person would have crumbled. Dugain’s work might be pure fiction but the insight and execution of this film version is very persuasive in suggesting there may be an element of truth behind it.
Putting aside the fact the dialogue is in French (let’s be frank, the Russians are unlikely to make a film with a plot such as this) Dugain creates a believable Soviet setting both through the aesthetic of the sets and the stark, hopeless atmosphere which eerily permeates through the screen from start to finish.
Despite having such a controversial figure as Stalin as a key character the story isn’t necessarily about him although his presence is felt whenever he is not screen through his iron fist ruling. The idea that doctors earn handsome salaries is certainly not evident here by the small and rather grotty apartment Anna and Vasilli live in, whilst their neighbours are the usual working class folk, with everyone quick to grass on anybody they think suspicious to the Party to save their own hides.
Stalin may be a physically weakened old man but his mind is as divisive and devious as ever, spouting off empty platitudes about being a mere comrade and not a master to Anna’s face one minute then threatening the life of her husband to ensure her secrecy the next. As cruel as this sounds, one does find themselves willing Anna to concoct a plan to execute a fatal injection or something to send this vile man on his way, but we quickly learn Stalin is still not to be toyed with.
Anna has enough on her plate already trying to conceive with Vasilli (this infertility is explained later on) as well as deflecting the advances of two male colleagues – the refined and polite hospital director (Tom Novembre) who tries to delicately diffuse any animosity shown towards here, and the sweaty, bespectacled and aggressive Chief of staff (Grégory Gadebois) who thinks his status should have Anna fall at his feet then throws a tantrum when she rebukes him.
Over the 100 minute runtime, we watch Anna go from an earnest hardworking doctor and devoted wife to a wrecked, paranoid, ashen faced vessel of conflict, wracked by the secrets she is forced to keep and the damage it does to those around her. Duplicity was already the order of the day in Stalin’s Russia as a means of survival, a regularly recurring motif which boils beneath the main plot, but Dugain applies it to the ultimate level of moral confidentiality to explore its effects.
Because of the dour settings, lack of overt musical soundtrack and muted colour palette, the silent intensity created is immediately palpable and unsettlingly effective, coupled with the tight and often intimate but never intrusive camerawork for that numbing claustrophobic feel. We never enter inside Anna’s head to know what is going on in there but we get close enough to feel what she is thinking while Stalin remains a charismatic closed book.
Hidden under a layer of make-up and prosthetics, the usually dapper André Dussollier literally transforms himself into Stalin and gives what some of us can only assume is an accurate impersonation of the man. He comes across as a wolf in sheep’s clothing from the onset yet we wait to see if he does drop his guard a little bit. He often denounces Hitler for his mistakes – they share many prejudices – with an air of arrogance and no belated sympathy.
Complimenting this astonishing portrayal is Marina Hands, in a vastly different role to her permissive breakthrough in Lady Chatterley, as Anna. Delivering one of the most effecting and nuanced essaying of a person walking on eggshells, Hands runs the gamut of emotions with great panache and grace, keeping Anna walking with a straight and dignified posture while inside she is crumbling to pieces. An underrated tour de force performance indeed.
In adapting his own novel Dugain has a head start over many other directors in how his film should look, feel and represent the central themes and points of the source material. While his directing isn’t flash or particularly distinctive, Dugain is aware that less is more and doesn’t dilute his film with needless technical flourishes, instead noting wisely that the very heart of the project is the story and the characters.
Refreshingly free of overt political commentary and retrospective opinions on the central character, An Ordinary Execution is a fictional account which feels like a genuine slice of history and certainly leaves us in awe like one. Recommended!