DYING SWAN, THE (Yevgeni Bauer, 1917, Russia, 49m)
Umirayushchii lebed (original title)
17 January 1917 (Russia)
Director: Yevgeni Bauer
Writer: Zoya Barantsevich
Stars: Vera Karalli, Aleksandr Kheruvimov, Vitold Polonsky
When Viktor meets Gizella one day beside the lake, he takes an interest in her and begins to call on her regularly. The one passion in the life of Gizella, who is unable to speak, is dancing. When Viktor deceives her and she finds him with another woman, she moves away and begins a career as a ballerina. Later, as she is on tour performing "The Dying Swan", the artist Glinskiy attends her performance. Glinskiy, whose own obsession is to depict death in his art, becomes fascinated by Gizella, and he is determined to use her as a model for a special project.
Vera Karalli was a star with the Russian Imperial Ballet who took up acting while on the disabled list. It seems only natural that Yevgeni Bauer would eventually get around to making a film that incorporated all the skills of his favorite actress. Despite Karalli's obvious legitimate skill, what struck me is how much Bauer's refusal to cut away from his master shot adds to his films. Why did it take two unbroken minutes of a legitimately talented person on her tiptoes to point out something I should have noticed in Twilight of a Woman’s Soul or After Death.
If they want you in their film bad enough they'll chop the "action" every 3 frames then run it on fast forward until it purportedly represents a fight. Through Bauer's masterful use of lighting, he not only regularly shades the mood, but the characters walking in and out of the light subtly reflects upon their mental and emotional state. The dolly out of Gizella (Karalli) sleeping that sets the stage for the nightmare sequence is an example of a way Bauer writes in light and shadow rather than simply dressing up important scenes. This scene could have been skipped entirely, but the effects of the unseen storm, flashes of lightning through the window and the wind blowing the curtains, set the tone. As a whole, Dying Swan isn't as visual as Twilight or After Death. There's less tinting and use of decor, and surprisingly more intertitles despite Gizella being a mute.
Bauer develops his deep focus technique in beautiful exteriors without much aid from artificial light, but as a whole this outing is close to a far more skillfully directed Tod Browning film. Lon Chaney could even play the painter Count Glinskiy (Andrej Gromov) who longs to possess the unattainable. There are two pathetic twisted love stories, Gizella leaves Viktor (Vitold Polonsky, the man obsessed with post mortem Karalli in After Death) after she catches him with another woman and becomes successful at her passion of ballet partially because she's so emotionally destroyed she's credible dancing tragedy. Glinskiy is a ridiculous decadent artist who, like Bauer, is obsessed with death. He can't find real death despite living during World War 1 until he views its incarnation in the alive but dead ballerina.
There are essentially only five characters in the story, yet they present a finely-tuned balance between the three ordinary, predictable characters and the two creative geniuses who live for their art. The ballerina Gizella and the artist Glinskiy are both very interesting, and with Bauer's expert guidance the actors (Vera Karalli, who contributes an enchanting ballet sequence, and Andrei Gromov) bring them to life effectively. The artist character is especially nicely drawn, highly eccentric and obsessive, yet with enough balance to make sure that he does not become a stereotype. The other three characters are used effectively as a balance, both in the story developments and in establishing the personalities of the two leads.
Bauer's technique, as always, shows a sure hand, using special techniques at the right places. The dream sequence is particularly affecting, with an atmosphere carefully established, the camera slowly drawing away from Gizella's bed, and then the dream itself using some creative visuals. The story of love and obsession draws you in almost effortlessly, and it's not possible to pull back, even when the sense of foreboding becomes almost unbearable. As a whole, it's a tightly constructed movie that makes a memorable impression.
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