Helene Cixous argues that as soon as women can speak, they are taught "that their territory is black . . . your continent is dark. Dark is dangerous. You can't see anything in the dark, you're afraid. Don't move, you'll fall."1 Dark is something feared, resented, unregulated. Light, in contrast, is often tied to knowledge, rationality and rules; adjectives which have been associated with men for much of Western history. In Anna Karenina (2012), an adaptation of the novel by Leo Tolstoy, Joe Wright plays with these longstanding associations of light and dark to offer a new perspective on one of Tolstoy's most famous characters.
Anna Karenina is married to Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, a respected figure in the Russian civil service. While on a trip to Moscow to visit her brother, Anna meets a man, Count Vronsky. Vronsky pursues Anna and Anna begins to fall in love with him, but this puts her in a morally compromising position. Vronsky is soon to be engaged to Kitty Shcherbatsky, Anna's sister-in law. This, in combination with Anna's status as a married woman, complicate the relationship and make Vronsky more alluring as something "forbidden." During her time in Moscow, Anna attends a ball held by the Shcherbatskys, an event meant to foster the relationship between Kitty and Vronsky. While there, Vronsky asks Anna for a dance. After initially declining, Anna accepts. Kitty, after only one short dance, is left by Vronsky as he takes Anna to the centre of the floor.
In Tolstoy's novel, Anna leaps into spaces of darkness and falls. First, she falls for Vronsky; then, for jealously; and, finally, in front of a train. She embraces herself and her desires, then suffers for it. The novel is propelled by a first-person narration that switches between the characters. Anna's narration includes pining for Vronsky and lamenting her position, in which she is characterised as an immature child rather than a woman seeking to push past societal limits. Through the various interior monologues of the characters, the novel focuses on rational thought in order to explain the actions and reactions of the characters. Wright's film, however, tells the story a different way, instead using movement and contrasting light. In the scene described above, the blending of light and dark temporarily disrupts the narrative teleology of the film as Anna and Vronsky dance. In this moment, a harmony exists between dark and light, between man and woman. They exist outside of societal constraints, free from repression and from limitations. The scene evokes a sense of equality and balance, revealing that this moment, perhaps, does not mark the start of Anna's fall at all; rather, it marks an upending. It marks the moment that Anna is finally liberated. In the scene Anna is constituted through the motion as "superb, equal . . . untenable in a real social framework."2
As they dance, the others in the room disappear from the picture while Vronsky lifts Anna, exalted, into the air. The lights of the background fade and the pair are fixed under a spotlight in the centre of the scene. By choosing to erase the other characters from the scene and focus on Anna and Vronsky, Wright symbolises the significance of this intimate moment. They move together, black and white, in total synchronisation. Both Anna and Vronsky have, in their dancing, implicitly decided to go against societal expectations – they have effectively isolated themselves. Their choice will have consequences, but the consequences affect Anna more than her lover. Wright foreshadows this in his careful choice of costuming. Anna is in an all-black dress, which makes her seem ominous and seductive. Vronsky wears a white soldiers' uniform, respectable and formal. Wright's choice of white and dark costuming creates a subconscious separation that distinguishes Anna from Vronsky, making it all the more alluring when they finally come together.
As the film progresses, Anna is ostracised as a rule-breaker and pushed out of her elite circles, but Vronsky continues in the military and faces few social consequences. The dance scene marks Anna's dénouement from her privileged position as the wife of a respected man to a social pariah. However, it also marks the moment Anna ends her "performance" in society and is free from it. The expectations of etiquette and behaviour for an upper-class woman of seventeenth century Russian society placed constraints on many aspects of a woman's life, from her clothing, speech and parenting style to her social freedoms. A woman's reputation secured her a spot in society and maintaining that reputation was predicated on following the social rules, which were policed by other members of the social circle. So, as the other people on the dance floor disappear from the scene, they also disappear from Anna's mind. She becomes free.
Here, I argue, the film, as a moving picture, accomplishes something which cannot be conveyed through words (especially when the words are coming from a man in seventeenth century Russia). In Tolstoy's attempts to describe Anna and her thoughts – as he tries to write from a perspective he could never know or understand – he characterises her as emotionally turbulent, guilty and often hysterical. He uses Anna's thoughts as a way to moralise, so that the guiltier she feels the greater a cautionary tale her story becomes. He writes: "Shame at her spiritual nakedness was crushing her and was being communicated to him . . . yes, these kisses were what this shame had bought."3 Joe Wright's film, in contrast, frees Anna from the literary constraints of male chauvinism. How? By putting her in motion.
The dancing scene puts Anna in the context not of thought, idea or written word, but action. She dances and the viewer sees her in the context of movement. We can feel the jouissance of Anna as she forgets all others in the room. For once, she is liberated. Thus, the scene allows us to think outside the limits of Tolstoy's characterisation. Anna is not fallen – she is exalted. She is no longer the passive woman, a slave to her weak will and temptation. Instead, she is transformed, reformulated. She is a liberated woman, living freely on her dark continent.