The title "A Slave of Love" has a charming, antique resonance. It evokes a bygone theatrical and film-making period, epitomized by heroines swooning in overstuffed or exotic, melodramatic settings. In an American context this title would suggest the movies of the '20s. Quite a few taste-setters could have used it: Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Theda Bara, Cecil B. DeMille, Elinor Glyn. It might have been invoked facetiously by comic stars like Marion Davies or Ben Turpin.
Soviet director Nikita Mikhalkov uses "A Slave of Love" to evoke a dying social system, the Old Order in the Process of being swept away by the Bolshevik Revolution. Nastalgic, elegaic impulses may attract Mikhalkov into the past, but they surrender without a struggle to his orthodox view of political and historical destiny. His heroine, the vain, flighty star of frivolour movie romances, can only justify her existence by being transformed into an absurdly sentimental martyr to the revolution.
Now at the Outer Circle 2, "A Slave of Love" arrives at a foregone, platitudinous conclusion in the course of depicting a movie company futilely trying to shoot one last potboiler before being overtaken by events. Based in southern Russian climes not yet under Bolshevik control, the company awaits a leading man, Maksakov, who turns out to be a no-snow, having converted to revolution back home in Moscow.
The story might end right there, as the troupe vainly waits for Maksakov. Indeed, the film seems to peter out three or four times when the leading lady, Olga, played by Elena Solovei, recedes into the distance, echoing the exits of chaplin's tramp and George C. Scott's General Patton. Eventually, she vanishes for good, after being drawn into revolutionary intrigue and having her shallow eyes opened by a love-smitten technician who has been using the company's camera to record White Russian atrocities on the sly.
The circumstances surrounding Olga's last recessional are delightfully daffy. Her suitor entrusts her with incriminating footagemoments before being gunned down by the local police. A teacup and saucer tremble in Olga's hands as she witnesses this tragedy.
Back on the set, her ineffectual attempt to assassinate the wretch responsible for her wretched lover's death is quickly followed by a successful attempt on the part of local Bolsheviks. They commandeer a trolley and place Olga on it for safety. Unluckily, the driver proves to be a reactionary and betrays his passenger to passing soldiers. When last seen, Olga in a runaway trolley is being pursued by cavalrymen. Meanwhile, a new day seems to be dawning over a hazy Mother Russia.
It's difficult to tell if Mikhalkov realizes how little there is to choose between his own plot and the scenarios of Olga's starring vehicles. If he intended something ironic, the irony boomerangs on him. Olga is the shakiest of emblems. In the beginning it seems ridiculous to single her out as an example of bourgeois complacency or obsolescence. At the end it seems equally ridiculous to promote her to revolutionary heroism.
Mikhalkov's filmmaking imagination appears to be at the mercy of ideology.If Olga and her world were ever a threat to progress, they have long ceased to be an effective pocket of reaction. For most movie people, Russian film history doesn't even exist prior to the revolution. Perhaps the very slackness of the depiction in "A Slave of Love" betrays doubts about how far this obsolete party of hack filmmakers can be used to point out Lessons in History.
There's no sense of urgency in Mikhalkov's direction. The pictorial style suggests Claude Lelouch indulging a Russian daydream. Mikhalkov even duplicates Lelouch's preference for contemplation in static long-shot indicating a deep-set need for picturesque serenity. Sometimes his cameras are so serenely remote from the actors as they emote that one wonders if they didn't feel a trifle annoyed.
Between its conventional packaging and polemicizing, "A Slave of Love" degenerates into an annoying trifle.