Did you know that Russian roulette was once an honorable method of dueling?
That’s one of the strangely fascinating facts revealed by The Duelist, a tiresome but meticulously detailed and visually sumptuous Russian melodrama about romance and intrigue amid the nobility in 19th-century St. Petersburg.
Beautifully shot and constructed in a classic style reminiscent of 1950s studio epics, writer-director Aleksey Mizgirev’s film is about an army officer turned professional duelist named Yakovlev (Pyotr Fyodorov). He's paid handsomely to stand in for men who are challenged to a duel, but who don’t want to risk their own skin.
Yakovlev is a man shrouded in mystery, a brooding dark soul who exudes Dostoyevskian angst and guilt. Flashbacks reveal that he was born a nobleman but stripped of rank and title after insulting a powerful member of the country’s ruling elite.
Exiled for years to the remote Aleutian Islands, Yakovlev has returned to win back his old social position. He's armed with killer instincts and a mystical power that he apparently picked up from an Aleut shaman.
Now, where would an archetypal knight-hero like our man Yakovlev be without a princess to rescue?
Predictable to a fault, The Duelist features an exquisitely beautiful and wealthy damsel in distress (Yuliya Khlynina), who has been seduced by the scheming Count Beklemishev (Vladimir Mashkov). He wants her money, and he systematically destroys all of her friends and family.
I like The Duelist’s hard-edged portrayal of its social stratum, a world ruled by a stifling militarist code that reduces all human values to honor and duty.
But the film is too formulaic and far too prone to melodrama, with outsize emotions as ridiculous as its comic-book villains.