Today it’s back to pre-revolutionary Russia, where indeed I’ve been spending a lot of my reading + watching time lately. Chrysanthemums (translit. Khrizantemy; 1914) is the story of Vera Alekseevna Nevolina, played by the radiant Vera Karalli in her first film role (her Wikipedia page is incorrect in stating that Ты помнишь ли? | Do You Remember? was her début).
Chrysanthemum flowers are a recurring visual motif throughout the film, reinforced by symbolic references in several of the intertitles (Flowers in bloom; Crushed flowers; Trampled flowers). Despite the lack of subtlety, it’s still very striking as a unifying device for the film. As this contemporary review describes:
The fires which so cordially and tenderly lit up the road to happiness burn out, the flowers which once smelt so sweet fall of the ground, and the days of grey, dreary autumn draw nearer. Such is life. Yet the soul of the actress Nevolina cannot accept her bleak fate, and without complaint or reproach she gives it up. Around her are her beloved chrysanthemums, not yet withered, still alive, and her friends strew these flowers on her, like a shroud of snow. – Вестник кинематографии (Vestnik Kinematografii, Cinema Herald); 1914.
Oops, spoiler alert. Still, this is a Russian film, so it’s impossible that a major character doesn’t die, especially when the story opens with Vera Nevolina living such a happy life: she is a dancer in the corps de ballet and blissfully in love with Vladimir. Such a state of affairs clearly cannot hold! Vladimir is desperate for money, so much so that when Vera gains an important admirer, he reacts not with jealousy but with the hope that the man could lend him some money. (The man does not – and he’s nicer about it than I would have been. Would you lend money to someone who asked you that as a first question?)
Incidentally, this admirer seems to be purely a fan of Vera’s dancing; he is not presented as a romantic rival. The love triangle happens on the other side – Vladimir takes up with a rich widow, breaking Vera’s heart. Oh, he tries to reassure her, but she isn’t fooled by his stripey pajama-suit, and knows something is up:
I must mention that Vladimir is played by Ivan Mozzhukhin (Мозжухин; usually Latinized as Mosjoukine). Mosjoukine and Karalli in a film together! This was the real lure of this film to me. In fact they also costarred in Do You Remember? (1914), but only the first reel of that survives, and it’s not available to watch. Here in Chrysanthemums is a rare occasion where Mosjoukine, an actor I find truly magnetic, doesn’t completely command the screen. Certainly he acts well, but overall it is really Karalli’s film. Although Mosjoukine was already established as a cinematic actor, it was early in his career and it may well be that, as a Bolshoi soloist, Karalli was the more famous figure at the time.
Seeing her dance, therefore, is one of the best parts of the film – as in the later The Dying Swan (1917; perhaps my favourite Bauer film), she gets a decent amount of ballet screen time. I can’t claim to be an aficionado of ballet, but she is truly beautiful in her movements.
But back to the melodrama. Vera goes to the unnamed widow’s house to confront Vladimir. The widow, attractive in a slightly matronly way, seems to know exactly what is going on, and reacts with smugness. But it’s Vladimir’s reaction that cuts Vera deeply – he is cruel and cowardly as he awkwardly averts his eyes and pretends that he doesn’t know who Vera is.
Vera is appalled and broken-hearted, but as one can guess from the review quoted above, rather than targeting Vladimir or the widow, she turns her distress inward. Backstage at the ballet theatre, she takes poison; dancing in the romance ‘Chrysanthemums’, she lets her bouquets of flowers fall, then herself collapses.
Yes, it’s the Evlaliya Kadmina legend in action again. This perhaps the most interesting thing about Chrysanthemums to me: this conflation of art, performance, and death – and the connection to a historical event. Though I can’t confirm that the film was explicitly inspired by Kadmina’s demise (apart from the review printed in Silent Witnesses that I’ve quoted from, I’ve never read anything at all about Chrysanthemums – there is virtually nothing to read), I would be extremely surprised if it was not a direct or indirect reference point. By indirectly, I mean mediated by literature: Kadmina’s 1881 death was the inspiration for Turgenev’s Klara Milich (1882), as well as Chekhov’s Tatiana Repina (1889), and Alexander Kuprin’s Her Final Debut (1889); several other writers also fictionalized her suicide. Clearly, her death struck a cultural chord.
In her essay “Her Final Debut: The Kadmina Legend in Russian Literature” (also referenced in my post on After Death), scholar Julie Buckler talks about how Kadmina’s demise intersects with several nineteenth-century Russian metanarratives. Firstly, it mirrors (or perhaps enacts) operatic and theatrical conventions of tragic, elaborately staged female death; secondly, it draws on cultural stereotypes about the life trajectory of real-life operatic divas, “who so often died young, lost her vocal powers, or self-destructed from an excess of temperament”. Buckler also makes a link to a cultural narrative whereby Russia represses and destroys its own talent. In any case, the film Chrysanthemums (along with After Death) shows that this was clearly still a story with cultural currency in the teens.
Chrysanthemums was directed by Pyotr Chardynin, one of the key filmic people of pre-revolutionary Russia. Coming from a theatrical background, in 1908 he started directing for Khanzhonkov, the most important producer/film studio of Imperial Russia. (As with many Khanzhonkov productions, Chrysanthemums was photographed by my old friend, Boris Zavelev). At Khanzhonkov, Chardynin was the foremost director until the rise and continued success of Yevgeni Bauer; this precipitated Chardynin to join a rival company, Khariotov, taking stars such as Vera Kholodnaya with him. It is thought that he directed about 200 films, of which at least 34 survive.
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Хризантемы (Chrysanthemums). Dir. Pyotr Chardynin. Russian Empire: Khanzhonkov, 1914.
As with many films, Chrysanthemums has never been released on DVD. One day?