"Execution" an offbeat view of Stalin's last days

Fri Feb 5, 2010 3:20am EST

PARIS (Hollywood Reporter) - How did Joseph Stalin die?

Best-selling author Marc Dugain's debut feature, "An Ordinary Execution," adds an intriguing twist to the historical consensus on the dictator's demise in its portrayal of an encounter between the ailing Stalin and a young doctor who has healing and pain-relieving powers in her hands.

Beginning with a full, rousing rendition of the Soviet anthem, this is clearly not a movie bidding to play in Peoria. It is nonetheless full of tension and mystery and has plenty to offer arthouse and festival audiences, particularly those with a sense of history.

Dugain's original novel of the same name ranges widely in time and place, using the 2000 Kursk submarine disaster as a key plot-point. In his adaptation, he has chosen to focus solely on the first section of the book (one-fifth of the whole), set in the winter of 1952.

Anna (Marina Hands), whose attempts to conceive a child with her husband Vasily (Edouard Baer) have so far proved fruitless, is whisked off to the Kremlin where Stalin (Andre Dussollier), having purged his personal doctor, has no one to relieve the aches and pains of his old age.

As she goes about easing his misery, he rambles and reminisces, affably but with a constant hint of menace, laying bare his philosophy of terror. He "suggests" that she should divorce her husband (how can he trust someone who has loyalties elsewhere?) and in due course Vasily is arrested by the political police and led off to the Lubyanka.

While the movie makes a fair stab at conveying the tone and texture of life in a police state, the core relationship is that between Anna and Stalin, seen entirely through Anna's eyes. Hands is wholly convincing in her depiction of the terror involved in entering Stalin's private world. Dussollier performs honorably as the latest in a long line of Stalin-imitators.

With no previous filmmaking experience, Dugain leans heavily on the skills of cinematographer Yves Angelo, who bathes the movie in a wash of browns and blacks, the night-time interiors and wintry gloom providing a fit setting for the looking-glass logic and emotional self-repression imposed by the Stalinist regime.

Slow-moving at times but compelling, Dugain's story is an ingenious attempt to dissect the corrosive cynicism underlying the Kremlin's mindset, exemplified by Stalin's much-quoted dictum, evoked in a closing title, that while one man's death is a tragedy, the death of a million men is a statistic.