La Petite Lili

La Petite Lili

In 1998, Yelena Danova (who starred in my first film Foreign Correspondents) and another Russian actress named Olga Vodin hired me to write a script for them. The assignment: to adapt Anton Chekhov's The Seagull for the screen, updating the setting from a summer idyll in Czarist Russia to the Malibu of today.

It was enjoyable but challenging work, requiring dozens of story meetings and drawn-out arguments over how to clarify Chekhov's murkier details. Although Yelena and Olga are still struggling to raise money for the film, we agree that our script is a success. Our secret? Not worshiping Chekhov as a god, and simply having fun with his characters.

Anyway, the whole reason I bring this up is that Claude Miller and his cowriter Julien Boivent decided to do the same thing, only moving Chekhov's clutch of frustrated lovers to the contemporary French countryside.

Yelena, Olga and I rushed out to see the film as soon as it opened in LA (some two years after its French premiere). How strange it was to watch these characters move about, as we said to each other, "Look, that's their Trigorin. And there's Masha right there." It was as though we'd sold our script to the French... only to have them screw it up royally.

Of course, if this is all Greek (or, for that matter, French or Russian) to you, that's the main problem with La Petite Lili: If you don't know The Seagull, you may find this film pointless, drab, and pretentious to no end.

Even as familiar as I am with The Seagull, I found this adaptation a dull affair. Miller and company take Chekhov far too seriously, their film at first a nearly scene-by-scene rehash of the play's first two acts, with precious little wit aside from Jean-Pierre Marielle as the wisecracking old uncle.

Surprisingly, the third act disembarks from the play entirely – and it's the most interesting part of the film. But it has nothing to do with The Seagull, and only slightly more to do with Chekhov. It later dawned on me that the whole film may be a put-on, a gag about the shallowness of filmmakers and actors; if so, then only cast and crew are in on the joke.

In any event, I'm in a unique position to review this film, having done the same homework as Miller and Boivent. At the risk of sounding boastful, I believe Olga, Yelena and I figured out how to make this tricky play work as a motion picture, whereas our French counterparts ultimately gave up, unable to get a grip on their source material.