Saturday, 16 February 2013

Yevgeni Bauer’s debut - Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913)

Nina Chernova
This is a striking debut from Bauer and one of the most advanced films I’ve seen from 1913.

There are some wonderful compositions using the director’s typically well-designed sets through which his actors move through amazing shifts in light and tone. It also features possibly the earliest tracking shot as the camera follows the main character, pulling the viewer and their sympathy behind the troubled young woman.

The first dolly?
As ever with Bauer it is somewhat unsettling to view his tales of aristocratic ennui in a country that hardly knew itself. Within a few years, the way of life he depicts will have disappeared forever as Russian society – perhaps the most divided in Europe – is re-worked by the Great War and the Bolshevik revolution. Sadly the director himself was to face oblivion before this event was settled.

Bauer did have sympathy for the revolutionary cause as his later films show and, whilst here he depicts some of the underclass as criminal, there's none more listless and decadent than the idle rich, with their pointless parties and affordable morality...

Depth, design and despair
The film centres on Vera Dubovskaja (Nina Chernova) a bored young woman who has lost her taste for the endless frivolity of her privileged lifestyle. Her mother cajoles her through a party which takes place in amongst the first of what was to become Bauer’s trade- mark multi-layered sets.

Vera is seen reluctantly joining in with the party and then breaks away from the dancing and moves camera-forward to rest on a chair where she is briefly harassed by two male admirers. Shoo-ing them away she stands and walks down set to be followed briefly by Nikolai Kozlovski’s camera – a short, stunning moment of film history.

Let there be more light...
But even without his moving lens, Bauer used lighting, mis-en-scene and well-choreographed performers to create a real sense of depth and movement. In Vera’s bedroom she is almost detached from the World bathed in blue-tinted light behind a gauze drape, she gets up and moves through the flimsy barrier to open her curtains and be illuminated by the daylight streaming through.

Vera’s mother takes her to give aid to the poor who seem pre-occupied by drinking and gambling… society no doubt to blame but… In the shadowy loft they encounter Maksim Petrov (V. Demert) who pretends to have injured his arm, Vera’s applies a bandage and Maksim correctly spies a sucker.

Vera in the slums
He leaves her a letter – breaking into her room in the dark and tells her he is in need of help. We see Vera making her way through the slums as Maksim looks down from his loft. There’s great shot from on top the building tracking Vera’s hesitant progress she looks afraid and very vulnerable…

In Maksim’s flat the tale takes its pivotal turn as Vera is raped and ends up killing her assailant as he falls into a drunken stupor… Bauer doesn’t show specifics but enough to make the audience aware what outrage has taken place.

V. Demert and Nina Chernova
Vera returns home knowing that nothing will ever be the same again… she stands distraught in the former comfort of her room.

But, over time, she returns to society and meets the handsome Prince Dolskij (A. Ugrjumov). The two start a romance but Vera starts having visions of the man she murdered and falls ill. Recovering she prepares herself to tell her love the truth…

But the Prince, seemingly prepared to forgive her anything, is unable to process the full extent of her news… particularly the fact that she has “known” another, no matter the circumstances – in the context of the time an obviously difficult situation as the film acknowledges.

The Prince casts Vera out of his life and by the time he relents and realises the mistake he’s made, it is too late and she has gone. He spends a fortune on trying to find her but the private detectives comes can find nothing.

A. Ugrjumov and Nina Chernova
Spoilers ahead: The years pass and Vera has changed identity becoming a famous actress. There are some stunning shots of her curtain call – a confusion of pink light – and her dressing room, again bathed in pink.
By chance an almost exhausted Prince has been persuaded to attend the theatre and he looks on in astonishment recognising his lost love.

Will they be reconciled? And is it the twilight for more than one person’s soul?

A fascinating historical document, Twilight of a Woman's Soul shows how many of Bauer's techniques were already in place as well as how far he would travel by his later films – After Death (1915) and A Life for a Life (1916) are covered elsewhere on the blog.

Nina Chernova acts well as the tortured star and never drifts overboard... understated and naturalistic.

What a remarkable culture Russia had at this time, so sophisticated and European – the nobility often spent more time in France than Moscow – and yet so near to societal collapse. The seeds of revolutionary wildfire were laid long before this period though and the fateful catalyst was mere months away when this film was released.

I watched the BFI DVD which contains The Dying Swan along with After Death and a nifty video essay by Bauer expert Yuri Tsivian. It's available direct from the BFI site.

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