Monday, October 3, 2011

Yevgeni Bauer | Twilight of a Woman's Soul, After Death, and The Dying Swan

three films by yevgeni bauer

 alone in a society of dependants
by Douglas Messerli

 V. Demert (script), Yevgeni Bauer (director) Sumerki zenskoi Dushi (Twilight of a Woman's Soul) / 1913

 Watching the several silent films I did in the summer and fall of 2011, I discovered something that I am sure aficionados of silent films have long known, namely that the fewer titles that a film has the more interactive it is with its audience. In Bauer's ground-breaking 1913 film Twilight of a Woman's Soul, we are given very few points of dialogue, and when credits appear, they represent simple statements of location or suggestions on the character's state of being ("Love and Conscience," for example.) The viewer, accordingly, must be very attentive to the acting, the facial and hand gestures, the complex bodily movements of the actor, to gain an understanding of the story. Indeed much of the dialogue between various figures must be imagined, created in conjunction with the acting and the viewer's imagination. This bond is a far more intense experience than when, as in many Hollywood films, everything is sp0ken, the acting is a sidebar rather than the focus of our attentions. Even more exciting, to my sense of taste, is that sometimes the viewer gets it all wrong; he later comes to perceive that he has misunderstood—mis-invented—the dialogue or did not properly comprehend relationships. There is a kind of joy in having to go back and rethink the series of events uncoiling before one. Many viewers, of course, may find such a process in which they are actively involved in the work of art as a tiresome, even unnecessary activity; some moviegoers prefer to sit back and have the images and the worlds they create flow over them. This all certainly explains my preference, in talking films, for the cryptic, the dissonant, the disjunctive, and works of highly complexity over easy and straight-forward narratives.

       Having said all that, it is still apparent that the narrative of this early film is quite simple. A wealthy and beautiful young woman, Vera Dubovskaia (beautifully performed by Nina Chernova) is despondently bored by the world about her. The film begins with one of Bauer's specialties, a grand party, where the camera (possibly for the first time in film history) dollies forward toward the audience as the guests arrive from the back and sides of the set, wandering through the scene in their lush gowns and formal suits. Vera, suffering the angst of the whole event, remains alone in her room as her mother sends the butler into her, demanding that she attend the event. From her brightly-lit bed, Vera moves through a white veil into the shadows to peer out of the beaded curtain at the door of the grand living room. Dutifully, she enters the party, even agreeing, momentarily, to dance with a young man, before again retiring, this time in the garden just outside the ballroom.

     There she is again entreated by other suitors to join the dance, but claiming a headache, she demurs, that is until her mother insists that she return to the events. Nikolai Kozlovski's camera tracks her as she stands and moves back toward the ballroom, pausing in anguish before she reenters to greet her guests.

     A few days later, her mother, on one of her occasional visits with charitable gifts to the poor, invites her daughter along. The girl is delighted to be included, and therein we perceive that her suffering is a kind a ennui that has settled about her life. Carrying wicker baskets filled food and gifts the two enter the house of a poor man—who just before their visit has been observed drinking and eating while playing a somewhat violent game of cards with his cronies—dispensing their treasures to husband and children. Their final visit is to Maxim, who works for these poor people. An eager Vera spots a sore upon his arm, which he (falsely) suggests is the cause of a burn, and she immediately sets about bandaging the appendage.

     Lusting after this beauty, Maxim writes her a letter proclaiming that the injury has gotten worse, that he is burning up with fever and may die. Discovering the note in her bedroom the next morning, Vera sets out, this time without her mother, to visit Maxim, who, the moment she bends down to care for him, grabs and kisses her, later pulling her to the floor where (symbolically at least) he drunkenly rapes her. In her desperation, Vera grabs an object and hits him over the head, evidently killing him.

     Her dramatic, mad, procession home, clothes all askew, is worthy of grand opera.

     Although Vera suffers for days, she soon meets the dashing Prince Dol'skii (A. Ugrjumov) who quickly falls in love with her and a week later proposes. Vera's turmoil is now made more complex, as she suffers, so report the credits, "Love and Conscience." His attempt to kiss her, in fact, calls up a vision on Maxim, as she pulls back in horror.

     After yet another attempt to gain her hand, Dol'skii wins her over, she determined to tell him the truth. But when she attempts to, he scoffs at her, reassuring her that "nothing will shake his love." On the eve of the wedding, however, Vera attempts to reveal her past again, writing a letter to Dol'skii. When her maid attempts to deliver it, she is told that he has had to rush home and will not return until the morning. Vera reluctantly, if relived, burns the missive.

     The wedding proceeds and she is gloriously carried off to the Prince's estate. A few hours later, she tries to confess again telling him that she has—as she puts it—"been" with another before him. Dol'skii is shocked, unable to believe what he has heard and, finally, appears outraged. Vera has no choice: she puts on her coat, takes her maid and her suitcase and leaves, telling the Prince, "I pity you."

     Time passes, and the Prince has clearly suffered in her absence, as he attempts to drown his sorrows in the company of loose women, whom he also clearly abhors. Disgusted with the dance of an older whore, he leaves their company, determined to find Vera and forgive her. He hires a private detective who reports that she has gone abroad, but  two years of searching for her throughout Europe results in nothing.

     One of the amazing things about this early melodrama—and in contradiction to its English language title—is that Vera is not at all in her "twilight." Having left the Prince, she has gone on to become, under the pseudonym of Ellen Kay, a great star.

     In his despondency, the Prince has retreated to his apartments until a friend insists, one evening, that he accompany him to the theater, in part to cheer up Dol'skii. There he discovers his former wife. After the play, he visits her backstage, entreating her to return to him and their former happiness. Vera, now completely in control, tells him "It's too late."

    The last scene is of a distraught Dol'skii, who realizes his life is ruined, and shoots himself.

    While Bauer's film is filled with high dramatic gestures of the late 19th century, it is, nonetheless, a truly modern work in which the heroine has come a long way from Nora of Ibsen's The Doll's House. Vera is a fearsome being who has transformed the males' transgressions into a powerful character who is able to survive alone in a society of dependants.

 Los Angeles, October 2, 2011 

escaping life
by Douglas Messerli

 Yevgeni Bauer (script, based of Ivan Tugenev's Klara Milich), Yevgeni Bauer (director) Posle smerti (After Death) / 1915

 In the two years since he had filmed Twilight of a Woman's Soul, Bauer had clearly learned the craft of filmmaking, and expanded on techniques with which he had previously experimented.

     The story once again involves a suffering and isolated being, in this case a retiring young scholar, Andrei Bagrov (Vitold Polonsky), who has clearly been too influenced by his mother, whose grand portrait hangs over his studies. He lives with his doting aunt, whose gentle demonstrations and love he attempts to brush away, focusing on his own studies and, particularly, his photography.

     A colleague of his stops by to invite him out to a social affair thrown by a local Princess. Resistant at first, he finally gives in. Once more Bauer's skill with tracking shots is apparent; but this time the field of depth is far wider as the camera, beginning at a seeming entryway, moves forward, again toward the viewer, further and further, each time expanding our view of the underway event filled with its participants, until you finally think the camera can go no further, despite its continued movement forward. The shot lasts for three long and stunning moments.

     Andrei and his friend arrive, clearly not as well dressed as the others, and the young student is obviously embarrassed by his appearance and lack of comfort with those around him. There is even occasionally laughter from those to whom he is introduced. But one woman, the actress Zoia Kadmina (Vera Karalli) greets him with a deep stare that literally forces him to sit in a nearby chair, while he engages her dark, black eyes.

     A few nights later at a charity soirée he encounters her again, this time observing her performance, and, once again, is stunned by her intensity. A day or so later he receives a letter:

                  If you can guess who is writing this, meet me at Petrovski Park at 5:00.

Andrei appears ay the anointed hour, as does Zoia, but looking into his face, she becomes uncertain of his ability to love and, perhaps, aware of his naiveté, running from the spot.

     Three months later, Andrei reads in the newspaper of Zoia's death during a performance; she has poisoned herself!

     Suddenly the film shifts, as the hitherto isolated and imperceptive hero begins to see images of Zoia, sometimes behind or beside him, but most often in his sleep, where she beckons him in a field of wheat to follow. In another dream, Andrei is laying in the wheat, while she gestures to him with the sleeves of her shroud, placing her bodiless arms about his neck. These encounters go on for several days, exhausting Andrei and worrying his aunt, fearful of his behavior and apparent fainting spells.

      Determined to put the girl out of his imagination by dealing with reality, Andrei travels to Kazan to visit her family, where he first speaks with the distraught mother—surprised by and suspicious of his visit—and then Zoia's sister, who reveals that the suicide has been an explicable product of unrequited love. She shows Andrei her sister's diary, and, after he begs to have it, gives up the document and a photograph.

       If he had hoped to end his obsessions with the dead girl, he is now—just as he had behaved previously with the death of his mother—drawn into a morbidly isolated world where the focus of his love is not upon the living but the dead. Like Antonioni's photographer Thomas in Blow-Up, Andrei studies the portrait over and over again, a photograph which his Aunt later discovers hidden beneath his desk blotter.

     The dreams continue, as do the ghost-like appearances throughout his rooms. Demanding that the specter appear and prove that she is Zoia by looking him directly in his eyes, Andrei meets up with the ghost one last time, as she slowly, vaguely looks in his direction.  He collapses on the spot, and, in the next scene, lies dying in bed.

     When his aunt asks him "What is wrong?" he replies "Wrong? I am happy."

     With his aunt on one side the ghost, suddenly, on the other, Andrei slips away from life, in a sense, accomplishing what he has been seeking to do since the very first scenes. He has escaped the world of the living.

Los Angeles, October 2, 2011

drawing death
by Douglas Messerli

 Zova Barantsevich (writer), Yevgeni Bauer (director) Umirayushchii lebed (The Dying Swan) / 1916

 Like After Death, The Dying Swan is very much caught up in subject of death and dying and carries forward much of the Edgar Allan Poe tone of the earlier film. But here there are also links to Twlight of a Woman's Soul, particular in the strengths of the female character Gizella, a mute dancer (again played by Vera Karalli).

     The film begins rather audaciously with Victor Karosovky (Vitold Polonsky) encountering Gizella on a seaside path. His first statement is almost humorous and signifies his forcefulness: "Have you seen a big dog running past?" It is immediately clear that by 1916 Bauer had begun to understand the benefits of titles, and throughout, he and writer Zova Barantesevich use them effectively.

     Of course, as a mute, Gizella cannot answer, and the handsome intruder runs off, to her tearful regret. Her kindly father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comforts her, speaking in a manner that might remind one of Nora Desmond in Sunset Boulevard recalling silent films: "You have your face, which is more than words." The writer might almost be apologizing for the lack of spoken voice in his own silent work.

     Again, Gizella meets the rambunctious young man near the ocean, this time hurting her leg as he suddenly appears near her. But the meeting, now that he knows the cause of her silence, is felicitous this time around, and before long he is meeting with Gizella and her father daily. Again, the writer speaks for the art of silent-film acting, perhaps as a kind of testament for Karalli's memorable performance: "Your eyes are immeasurably greater...." than any voice might be. "Your soul is singing." Love, to apply the cliché, is clearly in "the air."

     But only a few days later, Victor bows out of one of his daily walks with Gizella, while she surreptitiously observes him with another woman. The painful encounter is played out in visual terms through Victor and his new lover's affair in an open window, while below and to the right cowers the quiet and shy Gizella.

     Devastated by Victor's unfeeling actions, she writes to her father that he should take her away. Bauer lovingly puts this scene before a beautiful bush upon which he has tinted the flowers a lilac color.

     With the father's help, Gizella is enrolled in a dancing school, and before long she has become a famous ballerina, known for her "dying swan" role, a ballet which we are able to observe through a filming of the Bolshoi's and Russes de Monte Carlo's dancer, Karalli, perhaps one of the most stunning ballet performances on film, very much the centerpiece of this movie.

     Meanwhile, at the Count Glimsiy estate, the son, Valeriy—completely dedicated to depicting images of death—is attempting to capture his subject with drawings and paintings of skeletons without much success. His anger over his failure is fueled by his father's dismissals: "I am sure it's all trivial." He and his father represent a kind of decadence that explains the later Bolshevik denouncement of Bauer's film.

     Once again, a friend draws the reticent being into public life. At the ballet, where he is taken, Valeriy discovers, in Gizella's performance, the very vision of death he has been seeking. Visiting her backstage, he demands that she pose for him, and, soon after sends her one of the family crowns. The next day Gizella appears at his estate, he ludicrously strewing flowers before her as she makes her way into his studio. Glinskiy is in a near delirious state: "I do not know whether I exist at all or whether I am in a delirium," he admits.

     Her father, however, does not like the Count, a feeling reiterated by an evening storm with lightening and Gizella's dream in which a montage of hands reaches out to grab her. When Valeriy proudly shows his father the results of Gizella's first sitting, the elder dismisses his art: "But it is untalented. It is terrible!"

     Gizella's tour comes to a spectacular end, her original boyfriend reading of its success and pleading for an audience with her. Once again, upon the meeting, he momentarily frightens her, but this time he successfully pleads for her to forgive him, and they joyfully plan to marry.

     When Gizella appears at the Glinskiy manor for her last sitting, the artist discovers that she has lost her deathly mien: "Where are those sad, exhausted, joyless eyes?"

     Again she poses in the position of the swan's final death, but he does not even recognize her: "Can this be the same Gizella?"

     He moves toward her, standing over the prostate figure to put her hands around her throat, strangling her to death. "Do not move. That is where beauty and peace lie."

 Los Angeles, October 3, 2011
Copyright (c) 2011 by International Cinema Review and Douglas Messerli    

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