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An Ordinary Execution

Film Review : An Ordinary Execution

By Matthieu Boisseau

In the USSR : “no one can help each other, but everyone can denounce others”. This sentence extracted from Marc Dugain's film An Ordinary Execution definitely epitomizes the whole atmosphere of this film, set during the early 1950's in the USSR, where suspicion and denouncement are constant: welcome to the post-WW2 Soviet society.
Plot : In Moscow, Nina, a young urologist and healer, who works in a hospital is desperate to fall pregnant by her husband. To her great terror, Nina is secretly called upon to look after Stalin who is sick and has just "disposed” of his personal physician. The dictator has decided he now wants try psychics and healers as he feels he is at the very end of his life. As she starts to care for him, he slowly weaves his way into the relationship with her husband and gains increasing influence over the young woman  through a tangle of secrets and manipulation. One minute he's friendly, the next perverse, the 'cultured and frightning despot' reveals his skill in the art of terror as never seen before...
Marina Hands playing Nina
Marina Hands playing Nina
Marc Dugain's first feature film perfectly depicts the terrifying social climate of the USSR. He manages to perfectly convey the fear that spread over Soviet society, and channels the stifling atmosphere throughout the film. Though he chooses to exclude scenes of torture and physical violence, the film  still shocks and  overwlelms with its moral and psychological violence. Dugain places an emphasis on the underliying antisemitism under the Stalinist regime. This is further highlighted by the fact that he sets the story immediately after the anti-Jewish episode of the Doctor's plot in 1952, when a group of 11 doctors, including seven Jews, were wrongly accused of poisoning two dignitaries from the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. Among the accused was Stalin's personal physician, who was immediately “eliminated”. His disappearance is the starting point of the film, as it is his vacant position which creates a space for Nina's character,(played by Marina Hands)whom Stalin subsequently choses to be his personal doctor. From the very first meeting, Nina's professional and private life are turned upside down. The tyrant "suggests" that she should divorce her husband Vasily, otherwise he cannot possibly have faith in her (another memorable quote from Stalin : “how can I trust someone who has loyalties elsewhere”). Nina is forced to keep what is happening to her from her husband for fear of him being killed as a result. Can things get any worse? They can and they do when Vasily is arrested by the political police and dragged off to Lubyanka, the state jail.
Nina now faces a dilema : does she escape from Stalin's hold and loose her husband forever, or stay alongside the dictator in order to stay informed about her husband's state and condition. As a result, the only thing which could release Nina from Stalin's hold would be his death...
The film at heart is a piercing insight into the mind of a dictator. It shows to what extent Stalin was a Machiavellian and cool-blooded mass murderer (as the tyrant says : “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic”). But the most interesting point is that it is an accurate and unprecedented depiction of Stalin's intimate side, while never being a caricature. His passion for Mozart Concerto's, for Chaplin's films as well as his poor health (blocked arteries) are all shown. It is made all the more fascinating by André Dussolier perfect portrayal of the "Father of the Nation”.  The performance is so convincing and so far removed from his usual role of comic dandy that it took me a good 20 minutes before I actually recognised the French actor.  The transformation, however, was not painless. He apparently spent three and a half hours in make-up every day, and an uncomfortable fat-suit which came up particularly high in order to accentuate his double chin in order to achieve the desired result. He also had prosthetics on his face to age his skin, and added spots of pigment right up to behind his ears. Needless to say, all this work has definitely paid off. His performance is up there with one of the most impressive I have ever seen, even better than Michel Bouquet's turn in The Last Mitterrand (for which he won a Cesar for Best Actor).
Dussolier playing Stalin : very impressive
Dussolier playing Stalin : very impressive
Another highlight is the film’s rich screenplay. As he adapted his own hugely successful novel of the same name to the screen, Marc Dugain had to solve crucial problem : would his film be a historical depiction of the Soviet police state, or would it merely serve as a launch pad for a more fictional screenplay ? Thankfully, the director chose to combine a bit of both. His film manages to be both an accurate analysis of terror under the Stalinist regime as well as a captivating psychological-drama. Dugain's skill as a writer means that there is particular emphasis on the quality of the dialogues. The results is a catalogue of memorable lines such as “When I killed people who had been necessary to me, I realized that they weren't” Stalin declares, or even : “It is peculiar to torture to make people talk when they have nothing to say”. Of course, even great dialogue needs good actors to make it shine, and luckily the cast here is brilliant. André Dussolier is at his best, and Marina Hands and Edouard Baer stand out in roles far removed from their usual characters. Hands is incredible as this ordinary woman to whom something exceptional happens, and Edouard Baer is unexpectedly convincing in his despair.
Lastly, many historical elements are included to immerse the viewer in this dark period of Soviet history. Little snippets include the fact that Putin's grandfather was employed at Stalin's dacha. I have, on the whole, only one criticism : sometimes one can't tell fact from fiction in such stories : would Stalin have summoned a young woman with a gift in alternative medicine? This is quite unlikely. But the key in such 'historical ficitions' is actually to question them.

My final verdict ? A historical film which tackles an ambitious topic with an original point of view. Definitely one to watch, if only to delight in André Dussolier's unmissable performance.


22/11/2010 - isia said :

Do you mean Putin's grandfather was employed 'at' Stalin's dacha?
In answer to your question, 'would Stalin have summoned a young woman with a gift in alternative medicine?' - I think there was and still is much more faith in healers in Russia than in the West, and so it is plausible, if not probable


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