Saturday, July 18, 2015

Twilight of a Woman's Soul (1913)

Director: Yevgeni Bauer                                  Writer: V. Demert
Music: Laura Rossi (2003)                              Cinematography: Nikolai Kozlovski
Starring: Nina Chernova, A. Ugrjumov, V. Demert and Vitali Brianski

Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is the first film directed by the Russian cinema pioneer Yevgeni Bauer. For most of cinematic history his work was never seen or written about, hidden away in the film archives of the Soviet Union as politically inappropriate for communist consumption. The plot owes something to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but only very loosely. The screen story by V. Demert takes the ending in a very different direction from expectations, adding yet another dimension to this already complex early work by Bauer. Though the director would make dozens of films in a mere four years, from 1913 until his death in 1917, less than thirty remain today and must have been highly influential to the filmmakers in Russia who saw them before the communist revolution. The film begins with the actors introduced on film in character, a standard technique of the day, but artistically done by Bauer. Nina Chernova as Vera Dubovskaia walks forward toward the screen, elegantly dressed, a large fur muff hiding her face. Then she pulls it down and talks to someone off camera. A Ugrjumov plays the Prince and begins his shot in profile, clean-shaven with dark eyes. V. Demert, the screenwriter, plays Petrov, with slicked back hair and a knowing smirk on his face.

The opening scene is set at the home of Chernova’s mother, a countess, people mingling and talking in front of a patio that opens onto lush foliage. Chernova, however, is alone upstairs in her room. After coming down she begins to dance with Demert, and then he takes her out into the garden. Clearly she is unhappy, and the camera moves with her as she walks to a table and has a drink. The next day she is reading in her room and her mother comes to ask her to accompany her bringing food to the poor. This is something to do, and it makes her happy. As the two are driven away, the scene shifts to the house of peasants where men are playing cards and drinking. When they see the wealthy women coming, they hide everything and welcome them into their home, delighted with the free food. Then they visit an apprentice, Vitali Brianski, where Chernova bandages his arm and her mother gives him money. That night Chernova has a dream that the poor are surrounding her, begging for help, so when she awakes she decides to devote her life to helping the poor. Unfortunately Brianski decides to trick her by sending a note saying his bandaged arm is much worse, and asking her to come immediately. Of course, she goes to him without her mother, and the consequences are disastrous. When she finally makes it home she is no longer unhappy because of boredom, but haunted by what has happened to her. Later, when she is introduced to Ugrjumov as the prince, she tries to forget about what happened, but whenever she loses herself and touches him he literally turns into Brianski and she recoils.

The opening shot of Chernova’s home is very proscenium-like with the doorway in the back framing the shot. But in the very next scene Bauer’s use of shadow comes to the fore, with Chernova lit in the background and the foreground images looking like cameo cutouts. In fact, the naturalness of Chernova in her opening shot and as she moves through the party is in distinct contrast to the rest of the scene, which looks phony and staged in comparison. The dream sequence uses standard double-imaging, but the effect works well, and the moving camera shots are a welcome change of pace. Though it doesn’t happen often, once or twice Bauer finds occasion for interesting camera angles, like the overhead shot when Chernova is walking through the ghetto to find the apprentice. One of the other noticeable aspects of Bauer’s filmmaking is the entrance of characters into the scene from either the front or the back of the set rather than the side. This makes for some far more interesting action, whether it’s the butler entering from next to the camera toward Chernova’s bedroom, or Ugrjumov entering from behind a bank of flowers at the rear of the set into Chernova’s dressing room. The actors all do a good job of realizing Bauer’s vision, with Brianski a bit of a cliché, licking his lips and such. Overall, however, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a confident early film by a wrongly neglected early master filmmaker.

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