Sweetrolls and soupe aux choux in Anna Karenina

The new Anna Karenina film is absolutely gorgeous–which anyone can plainly see from the trailer–but it is also quite sharp. I read the novel over the summer and was enthralled, but suspected that it would be impossible to encompass such a sweeping narrative into a feature-length film. I’d forgotten Tom Stoppard was writing the screenplay, though; alluding to sweeping historical narratives through quick, incisive dialogue is his specialty.

When I finished the novel, I wanted to blog about the scenes of eating throughout the narrative in which food stood in for social relationships and cultural alliances, but felt overwhelmed by the number and implication of these scenes. So I was gratified to see how the film packed in a couple of the novel’s major themes into a few well-chosen moments of dialogue between Stiva Oblonsky and Kostya Levin. [N. B. I’m none too certain of my transcriptions below, as there are not yet any clips of these scenes on the web.]

The first of these takes place when gentleman-farmer Levin arrives in Moscow to propose to Kitty, Oblonsky’s sister-in-law. Levin approaches Oblonsky for advice, and Oblonsky sweeps him away to outfit him in city-appropriate clothes and takes him to a lavish meal. Over luxurious courses of oysters and wine, Oblonsky relates his own troubles to Levin; his marriage is on the rocks since his wife discovered his affair with their governess. Levin, a virtuous atheist and a man in love with a woman who is not yet his wife, is astonished by this bad behavior. “It’s as if I left this dinner and went directly to a bakery to steal a sweetroll,” he says, bewildered. Gleefully unchastened, Oblonsky says that sometimes sweetrolls are not to be resisted.

In book and film, this exchange offers a vivid introduction to each man’s morality. Levin spends a great deal of the novel searching for a rational morality, a guideline for being good that doesn’t depend on religion or complex social rules. Nonetheless, he is susceptible to  social conditioning, often finding himself appalled as a knee-jerk reaction rather than a rational judgment. Oblonsky, on the other side of the table, is an unapologetic hedonist: he adores pleasure and fine things, and seeks them out with little consideration of the literal or emotional costs. He is not a cruel man or a stupid one, though; his sins are considered acceptable, even desirable, to the society he moves in, certainly more naughty (like stealing a sweetroll) than criminal. This makes a fascinating contrast with the way Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion is received, and how that changes as the gentle classes realize it’s no mere mischief they’re up to.

Later in the meal, the server brings them a steaming bowl. “Is this cabbage soup?” exclaims Oblonsky with merriment. The server tells him it’s “soupe aux choux a la Russe”–cabbage soup in the Russian style. Oblonsky finds this quite funny, and so should we: they are served wholesome Russian peasant food as part of their fancy Frenchified meal. In the novel this plays out a little differently: farmer Levin half-jokingly says he’d prefer a cabbage porridge to the fine meal, and the server (who anxiously pronounces everything on the menu in French, even when Oblonsky does not) maternally offers him porridge “a la Russe.” But the characterization is the same: the trappings of luxury and cosmopolitanism are frequently merged with Europeanness in general and Frenchness in particular; Levin, a gentleman, can roll with it but would be much more at home on his farm with his rustic lifestyle; Oblonsky wants the best of everything, but as the very existence of his friendship with Levin would suggest, his relationship with Russian upper class style is not uncritical or uncomplicated. The tension between the lifestyles of the city centers and the Russian countryside occupies a great deal more space in the novel, of course; without so many pages to expand and expound, though, I appreciated the film’s neat nods to this theme with quick verbal or visual contrasts.

Later, Levin hosts Oblonsky at his country house, where they plan to hunt together. In contrast to the brilliant lights and elaborate decor of the city, Levin’s house is dark and furnished mainly with practical wood and leather.  Their dinner is cooked and served by Levin’s housekeeper, who serves them cabbage soup. “Soupe aux choux a la russe!” Oblonsky exclaims gleefully, and teases the housekeeper that she could be a chef in Moscow. During their meal, Oblonsky begins lecturing Levin on what to do about Kitty, to whom Levin still is not married, and Levin quietly asks him if he’s stolen any more sweet rolls. Oblonsky glibly remarks on some other kind of bread, but the implication is clear: there are so many kinds of treats to tempt the connoisseur.

 

There are a number of other interesting and semiotically dense scenes of eating in the movie, of course–the meal at which Karenin intends to tell his host (and brother-in-law) about his intended divorce, Anna’s awkward tea alone in a roomful of judgmental society women–and still many others in the novel that would not have translated as well onscreen (including my beloved strawberry jam scene).  But these two dinners fit together beautifully, like parentheses around the differing attitudes toward love and country held by the two men.

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