Andrei Konchalovsky

 

PRINCESS GAGARINA

 

It was the summer of 1967, and another international film festival was being held in Moscow. The movies The Story of Asya Klyachina and Andrei Rublev were already behind me, and I had garnered a certain degree of acclaim as a would-be dissident — the creator of forbidden movies. By then I already knew that my next film would be Ivan Turgenev’s Nest of the Gentry.

Among the members of the large French delegation at the festival was Pascal Aubier, an interesting person and talented director who, with his drooping mustache, somewhat resembled Gogol. Traveling with him was a young girl with high cheek bones, a pert nose, and slanted Tatar eyes of a transcendent blue. She had dark blonde hair and a lovely, oval face. I felt as if I had known her for a long time. Her name was Macha Méril.

When I first saw her everything inside me stopped. Everything stopped because I was married – to my second wife, Natasha – and because I had a baby boy who was very dear to me.

There are moments with a woman when you can’t get a grip on yourself because your feelings are too much to bear. You’re afraid not just to touch her, but to simply be near her. When I learned that Macha was of Russian nobility, Princess Maria-Magdalena Vladimirovna Gagarina, my free fall into the abyss only accelerated. There was a sense of absolute doom.

The funny thing was that I hadn’t even planned to be in the city for the festival. We had already begun work on Nest of the Gentry, and had rented a big log cabin in Bezvodny, the village in which I shot Asya Klyachina. I was supposed to travel there to meet Valya Ezhov, the screenwriter.

I saw Macha at the opening, two days before I was supposed to leave. I invited her to go for a drive with me. I showed her Moscow while a chauffeur took us to Vnukovo Airport, the whole time looking out of the corner of my eye at her inimitable pert nose, the tender oval of her face. She escorted me inside the airport, where I picked up a ticket, and flew off.

I arrived in Bezvodny in a Volga sedan aware that I needed to write a screenplay, yet knowing full well that I wouldn’t stay. The whole time Valya kept saying, “What’s with you? What’s the matter, eh? Let’s get to work.”

I went for a walk in a field and sensed that I was missing the defining hour of my life. From the nearby city of Gorky, now Nizhny Novgorod, I placed a call to Moscow, where the festival was in its second week. I got through to the film studio and arranged for a private screening of Asya Klyachina. Then I called Macha, told her that I was coming back.

On the last day of the festival I showed her the movie. Then I invited her to my place.

She went with me gladly. We sat down to char-grilled chicken “Tabaka,” but I couldn’t eat a thing. I was shaking. I was experiencing precisely that which the main character in my later film, Maria’s Lovers, experiences — such a force of feeling that all but platonic relations were impossible.

We kissed. She disappeared into the bathroom and, ten minutes later, returned to the room — clean, fresh, smiling, open to my embrace, virginal in her nakedness.

“Come here…”

I was still in shock — couldn’t perform like a man.

She fell asleep. I spent the whole night beside her, staring at her and smoking like a fiend.

It was summer. July. Dawn broke early.

It had been our first romantic encounter, yet it had not been the least bit erotic. She left.

In September I began to call her on the phone. She mailed me some photographs of her, photos that I keep to this day. In one she is holding a Russian language textbook. She began to write to me in her broken Russian, said that she was studying the language.

Around that time a Soviet delegation of filmmakers was preparing to travel to Prague. There, events already were underway that would morph into the Prague Spring. Brezhnev and his team were trying to pull all the levers possible so as to keep things under control. The visit by the delegation with colleagues from Czechoslovakia was a link in the overall chain.

I had convinced Aleksandr Karaganov, the chief ideologue in the filmmakers’ union, to take me with him. I had only one goal — to see Macha. I had planned to conclude the speech I was slated to deliver at the gathering with a quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, but was asked to cut it.

“There’s no point in bringing up Solzhenitsyn,” Karaganov said.

I ignored him.

It took enormous nerve and effort to persuade the delegation to remain in Prague an extra two days. Karaganov was strongly opposed, but the Czechoslovakians intervened.

Macha arrived the day the delegation was scheduled to depart. I had asked Otar Ioseliani, the Georgian-French filmmaker, to tell her that I’d be waiting for her in a car.

I was scared. Such were the times. Everyone was scared of everything. Agents of the KGB, agents of the Czechoslovak security services, seemed to be everywhere.

Macha was so beautiful — wind-blown, tanned, beaming. She had been vacationing somewhere along the Mediterranean on the yacht of her friend, the great composer Iannis Xenakis, he and his scars. She got a room in the same hotel.

Again, I was shaking all over. Nothing made sense. I felt as if she were so far away from me! Thoughts like “We are such a bad match!” and “What am I doing here?” drove me to drink.

She spoke a great deal, in French.

I didn’t understand everything, but I nodded my head, anyway.

I was dejected. Next to her I felt financially inadequate. She struck me as so unattainable!

We walked around Prague. It was the fifth of September. I bought a half dozen postcards with reproductions of Van Gogh paintings, gave them to her, said: “On the fifth day of every month, please send me one of the postcards. Letters will never reach me, but the KGB doesn’t pay much attention to postcards. Write about anything — the weather, whatever comes into your head. If the postcards arrive, I’ll know that you still love me, and I’ll tell my wife about us.”

We parted.

A month later the first postcard arrived like thunder in the midst of a clear sky. After that first postcard I began to live merely for the next one.

A second postcard. A third. A fourth…

After the fourth postcard I couldn’t stand it any longer. When Natasha returned from visiting her parents in Kazakhstan, carrying my dear boy, I met her at the airport. As we rode in the car — little Yegor, our son, seated on her knees — I told her that I was in love with another woman.

“It would have been better if you had told me my mother had died,” she said.

I felt terrible. But it was too late for me to behave any differently.

In a month the fifth postcard arrived. On it was written the message: “Dear Andron! All is well with me. I’m getting married. He’s an Italian director, a wonderful person, very interesting… I’m sure you’ll like him.”

No matter.

My relationship with Natasha was already destroyed. I felt a deep emptiness inside.

I went to Czechoslovakia, to Karlovy Vary, for spa treatments. I called Macha, but she was in Italy. I was ready to leave, to sever all ties, to become a defector. I wrote her a long letter: “Nevertheless, the years will go by, and I will still love you, and I’ll take in you and all your children after you divorce.”

The director she married had three children, and she had become their mother.

My time with Macha nearly proved fatal for me. A noblewoman, a princess, a woman of European culture — it was what I had secretly wished for, what I wanted in a partner. I was a man with a Soviet mentality, a sovok. And she was Paris, and Italy! It only made sense that she dumped me. Could things have turned out any other way?

I anguished over what happened, but I didn’t deceive myself. I thought, “As if!”

The falling out with Natasha was very painful. She wanted to fight, to go to war with me. She wanted a divorce immediately, but I wouldn’t give her one. I knew that it would only make things worse for her; at the time she was studying at the Gerasimov Institute of Cinematography (VGIK), in Moscow.

My wounds ran so deep that, when I wrote the screenplay for Nest of the Gentry — which I began to shoot the following year — Macha worked her way into the film as a character carrying her real name, Princess Gagarina:

Lavretsky meets her in Paris. She’s Russian, but she doesn’t speak a word of Russian. All the same, she’s a blue-blooded girl from Penza.

Actually, my entire Nest of the Gentry was permeated with a monstrous grief — for Macha, for France, for the fact that there was nothing to do but live here, on Russian soil, to not allow myself to be ripped from her roots. All Lavretsky’s suffering, all his thoughts grew out of how I felt over the course of that year, thinking about how — in Rome and Paris, bathed in light — walked a woman before whom I had been on my knees, and in whom I had deceived myself.

The entire movie is about that very idea — where to live.

Two years later, after remarrying, I traveled to Rome thinking of only one thing: I was going to meet Macha. She knew that I was coming. In fact, we met the very day of my arrival. She drove up with all her children, introduced me to them. She was very excited, cheerful. I also was energized and upbeat, even though I was terribly afraid of meeting her, even though I had traveled there with only one goal – to see her.

She brought me to the set of a film. They photographed her on a roof somewhere beyond the Tiber, in Trastevere. I sat there, drank coffee, watched as she posed. Suddenly I began to feel as if I were wresting myself from her — that my love wasn’t weighing me down anymore. I was free again.

It felt so good that I laughed out loud.

“Why are you laughing?”

All those years, from the moment we met, I had been living under the impression of her captivating image. In hindsight I realized that we had been together only three days and two nights.

We became friends. My mother met her. I stayed with her, met her wonderful sisters, her mother. Later Macha got divorced and returned to Paris. She didn’t remarry, but she lived with different interesting men.

She’s a wonderful person. She’s always vivacious. She’s a great cook. She writes books — on the art of cooking, on interiors. She’s a woman of the world, and an outstanding actress. She even worked with me in the film, Duet for One.

Even so, deep down I sensed an emotional scar: Our fabulous relationship remained unchanged, yet I always sensed something unspoken. Something had transpired between us, something dramatic. But what?

After Duet for One she proposed that we stage a play. “I’ll introduce you to Giorgio Strehler,” the Italian theater director. “Let’s do Chekhov.”

That’s how the production of The Seagull came about in which she played the actress, Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina. Rehearsals were intense, very challenging. At one point Macha abruptly lashed out at her partner, the actor who was playing Irina’s son, the playwright Konstantin Gavriolovich Treplyov.

Macha had wanted her young boyfriend to play the role, but I wouldn’t take him on. (I don’t like when someone is thrust upon me. I never once regretted that I hadn’t listened to her.)

Her outburst of resentment was sudden, severe. She was cutting, spiteful. As we were leaving I stopped her on the stairs.

“Macha, you need to be kinder,” I said. “You need to be able to forgive.”

She looked at me as if she had been given an electric shock, or scalded with boiling water. She turned pale.

“Forgive? You’re telling me to forgive? What right do you have to tell me that?”

She ran down the stairs.

I didn’t understand. It was the first time something like that had happened in the twenty years we had known each other.

The next day we met again at rehearsal. I said, “Macha, I didn’t follow what you were saying yesterday. Why shouldn’t I be the one to tell you, ‘You need to be able to forgive?’”

“What, you can’t figure it out on your own?”

“No.”

She looked at me as if she were seeing me for the first time.

“All right, then,” she said. “Let’s try to talk about it later.”

We waited until the end of rehearsal. I went to her in her dressing room.

“Macha, tell me what’s going on.”

“You mean to say you don’t know what happened between us?”

“I know exactly what happened between us. You dumped me.”

“I broke up with you? You broke up with me, my darling.”

My insides did a somersault.

“I got the postcard from you. You married someone else. I left my wife for you. I waited for your postcards like manna from heaven! My entire life was turned upside down because of you.”

“I told you everything in Prague…”

“What was it you told me?”

“That I was pregnant. That I had been pregnant for a month and a half. From you.”

Everything began to swim before my eyes. How? I couldn’t imagine how it was even possible to become pregnant that first night, from me; our encounter had bordered on the purely platonic…

At least that’s how I remembered it.

“It can’t be!”

“I told you. You had no reaction whatsoever. I was waiting for some kind of sign from you. I thought you wanted a baby, thought that we would keep it. But you didn’t answer, didn’t say a word. You just drank yourself into a stupor. For two months you didn’t respond. I waited a very long time. In the end I understood that you didn’t want a child, and that was that.

“I wanted to forget you,” she said. “So I got married.”

My very notion of our entire twenty-year relationship went straight to the depths of Hell. None of the roses I had sent her over the years — to her home, to her dressing room — could explain, could excuse, such a colossal misunderstanding.

She’s an astonishing creature, an extremely intelligent creation. She’s the ideal woman. Russian. Aristocratic. Always precious to me.

I still can’t shake loose from feelings of guilt, albeit a guilt arising from the simple fact that I had a poor knowledge of French.

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ANDREI KONCHALOVSKY was born in 1937 into one of Russia’s most famous families. As a film student he collaborated on groundbreaking screenplays with budding legend Andrei Tarkovsky before cementing his own place in Soviet cinema, then leaving Moscow at no small scandal for Hollywood – where he hawked caviar to make ends meet while trying to remake a career, all the while dogged by rumors that he was a KGB agent. Eventually he would leave his mark in Hollywood, too, making award-winning films with actors ranging from Jon Voight to Sylvester Stallone, and Barbara Hershey to Whoopi Goldberg. In the 1990s he returned to Russia, continuing to direct movies, plays and opera. In 2014 and 2016 he was named best director at the Venice International Film Festival for, respectively, The Postman’s White Nights and Paradise.

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Read more by Andrei Konchalovsky:

 
Author’s website
A story in The Literary Review

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About the Translator:

 
BRYON MACWILLIAMS is an American writer and translator whose memoir, With Light Steam: A Personal Journey through the Russian Baths, was published in 2014 by NIU Press. He won awards for his reporting at U.S. daily newspapers before moving in 1996 to Moscow, where he was based for nearly twelve years as a foreign correspondent covering the territories of the former Soviet Union. He has written for publications big and small, including: The New York Times, The Literary Review, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Nature and Science.
 

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