The most potent and revealing sequence in Bernard Rose's Tolstoy adaptation The Kreutzer Sonata arrives within the first 20 minutes. Edgar (Danny Huston), the wealthy philanthropist husband of the beautiful concert pianist Abby (Elisabeth Röhm), narrates the tale and immediately informs the audience of his incendiary anger over the conviction that his beloved is erotically entangled with her violinist, Aiden (Matthew Yang King). As Edgar reflects on his initial courtship with Abby and their earliest sexual liaisons, the film flashes back to the beginning of their relationship and interpolates a series of not-quite-hardcore couplings between the two that quickly take on a nauseating and repellent, sadomasochistic quality -- particularly when we witness Abby clad in a dog collar with a leash attached, that Edgar holds from behind.
The leash symbolically underscores Edgar's psychotic need to control every aspect of Abby's world. When she tells him, then, that she's longing for a chance to go out and find herself, to innocently explore interests outside of the marriage, Edgar attempts to dominate that pursuit as well by actually introducing her to Aiden and suggesting that the two play a classical duet together. He's hoping, on some twisted level, that the two musicians will begin an affair -- not simply controlling his wife, but deliberately, aggressively fueling his own coke-addled paranoia by using others as pawns, and thus creating a reason for the paranoia to exist.
The film's most ingenious quality involves its ability to convincingly establish Edgar's paranoia without pulling the audience into it; we remain constantly aware of Abby's lack of any apparent wrongdoing even as Edgar grows increasingly convinced -- with no tangible evidence before him -- of her affair with Aiden. Ontologically as well, Rose hands us two incongruous levels of reality: an exterior level, where we continually witness an almost placid environment, rich with classical music, understated characters, and mannered situations, and an interior level that illuminates Edgar's emotional inner life, conveyed through narration that sonorously echoes the deep and weathered voice of the actor's late father (John Huston). We're handed a series of reflections so vulgar, paranoid, and violently angry when Edgar first begins to narrate in the opening sequence (and we hear him utter a steady stream of expletives) that it deliberately cuts against the grain of the external world we are shown and seems to violate the mood before us. The confrontation between the film's two planes of reality creates tension in the drama, and when Edgar's inner delusions take over, they prompt the shocking denouement.
On all of these levels, Kreutzer succeeds; what it lacks (by virtue of establishing an external reality unshaped by Edgar's bias) is a convincing series of insights into why a young and well adjusted woman such as Abby would willingly and knowingly subject herself to a relationship that involves dominance and submission, and then project shock, indignation, and confusion when Edgar attempts to control her. As it stands, she appears unable to mentally link the sadomasochism of her initial encounters with Edgar to his behavior within the marriage, and that suggests extreme dysfunction on her end as well.
Kreutzer convincingly and persuasively conveys the delusional psychosis of one spouse in a dysfunctional marriage but fails to hand us an adequate etiology for the other partner's behavior. If Rose had found a way to do both concurrently, he might have produced a small masterpiece in lieu of an ingeniously structured but moderately satisfying erotic thriller.