Shot in 1916 (and released the following year), Yevgeni Bauer’s “The Dying Swan” is a strange tale that combines ballet, art, death and the macabre to unnerving effect. The heroine of our story is Gizella, a young mute girl who lives with her father and who has an undying passion for dance, particularly ballet. Being born mute though, Gizella finds it hard to interact with other people and because of this, romantic love has never crossed her path. That is until she meets Viktor, a young playboy type, when he is out one day looking for his dog. Viktor becomes entranced by the mute girl and the two begin dating. Gizella falls head over heels for this man, but sadly Viktor throws her aside when he has had enough of her and begins to date someone else. Totally heartbroken, Gizella pleads to her father that they leave their home and settle down elsewhere. The father agrees and even finds his daughter a job at a ballet company where thanks to her amazing abilities in the form, Gizella soon becomes the number one draw card due to her devastating performance in the lead role of “The Dying Swan”. Meanwhile, in another part of town, we meet Valeriy Glinskiy, a frustrated artist determined to capture the true spirit of death in one of his paintings. One day he is dragged to the ballet by one of his friends and is spellbound by the dancer performing “The Dying Swan”. He understands immediately that the sadness, despair and look of heartbreak behind the eyes of Gizella is exactly what is missing in his paintings and he convinces the girl to pose for him. However, this simple act of posing for a painting spells the doom for all that are involved.
While Yevgeni Bauer is often regarded as a visual stylist when talking about his films, the technical qualities of “The Dying Swan” could be considered rather simplistic. From memory, the camera only moves once in the entire picture, rather Bauer’s images are taken from front on with the majority of the action taking place center screen. That said, Bauer does indeed have a keen visual eye because he fills the rest of the frame with beautiful detail to make sure that they feel anything but bland. There are two standout sequences within “The Dying Swan” that make this film essential to search out and find. The first is the actual performance of the titular ballet which is breathtaking in its beauty. The actress who played Gizella, Vera Karalli, was actually a fully trained ballerina of the Russian Ballet and her expertise is on full display here. It is in this scene that she is able to truly be comfortable in the role of Gizella and as good as she is at portraying the mute girl, it is safe to say that Karalli was a better dancer than she was an actress.
The other standout moment begins with the film’s only camera movement, as we see Gizella laying in her bed, obviously struggling in her sleep during the stormy night, when the camera slowly begins to track backwards giving as an extended look at Gizella’s room and almost announcing that stylistically the film is about to change. What follows is a brilliant and macabre dream sequence that would be more accurately called a nightmare and could even be considered a premonition of sorts. In the dream, Gizella is haunted by the artist’s past model who claims that the disturbed man killed her and that the crown Gizella is wearing belongs to her. It is a fantastic scene, and visually a very dark one (not to mention thematically too) with thick shadows enveloping most of the frame to create a terrifying atmosphere.
While there is no doubt that Gizella is an expert at her trade, the same cannot be said for Valeriy Glinskiy, the self-important artist. Although we are never privy to his works of art he is making in the moment, he does share them with his friend who after viewing the painting declares that there is no artistry at all in it, and goes even further by embarrassing the man saying that it is terrible. Glinskiy can only see the beauty he is creating, believing he is finally achieving his ultimate dream. Whether or not Bauer is saying that the artist is in fact delusional or if it is a comment on the whole “art is in the eye of the beholder” thing, either way Glinskiy comes across as a little pathetic. However no matter how good or bad he is as an artist, it is through this character that we get the most devastating and devastatingly beautiful image that we do with the final shot of “The Dying Swan”, and to that degree, I guess in a way Glinskiy is finally successful.
“The Dying Swan” signified an end of an era in a couple of ways. Sadly six months after the release of this film, Yevgeni Bauer died from pneumonia and complications from a broken leg he suffered while making a film entitled “For Happiness”. 1917 also saw the start of the Communist Revolution and the Russian Civil War which lasted until 1921, and from this point the types of film’s that filmmakers like Bauer were making in Russia no longer were getting made, instead they were replaced with revolutionary films, the types that Sergei Eisenstein would later make famous to the world with films like “Battleship Potemkin” and “Strike”.
Overall, I found “The Dying Swan” to be a beautifully macabre film. It is romantic and twisted both, and at a mere forty nine minutes long, is definitely worth a look. While the editing of the film makes time move so quickly that it can become a little confusing, this is a minor quibble of a hugely entertaining film.