I was pleasantly surprised to find that The Twilight of a Woman’s Soul is a misnomer for this story: a more accurate title might be The Strength of a Woman’s Soul, or indeed, The Twilight of a Man’s Soul. The plot centres around Vera Dubovskaya (played by Nina Chernova), an upper-class woman who feels unfilled in her life. After visiting the poor with her mother, her sleep is disturbed by thoughts of them, and she decides to devote time to philanthropy.
During her earlier visit, she caught the attention of a man named Maxim. But this isn’t to be a story of a romance spanning social classes: he is leering and boorish, smacking his lips and grinning sinisterly as he thinks of her. His grotesque makeup reinforces this characterisation. Still, when he breaks into Vera’s house at night via the window and leaves a note asking if she would come back to see him – his hand that she bandaged is ablaze, he is afraid he might die – she agrees to return.
He rapes her. Afterwards, she is in shock, mechanically obeying when Maxim asks her to pour him a glass of water.
When he lies down and passes out, Vera kills him.
Some time passes, and Vera attracts the attentions of Prince Dolskii, who falls madly in love with her. She loves him too, but her rape and her fear of his reaction to it (and, perhaps, her murder, although the story doesn’t dwell on this) haunts her. Several times, she tries to tell him, but circumstances intervene, and he continually affirms his love for her, assuring that nothing could tear them apart. She writes him a letter (“something almost unspeakably horrible has happened … I have belonged to another”) but when it is returned to her because the Prince was not at home to receive it, she burns the letter.
It’s on their honeymoon that the truth is finally revealed. Secure in his love for her, Prince Dolskii reacts with sensitivity and concern, assuring her that this will change nothing.
Just kidding! He flinches away from her and one can practically see a thought bubble with the words “damaged goods” appear beside his head. After an initial moment of hurt, Vera regains her equilibrium. “I pity you, Prince”, she says; she is serene as she dons her hat and leaves.
Almost immediately, Prince Dolskii realizes the value of the woman he has rejected, but Vera has seemingly disappeared off the face of the earth. He hires a private detective and goes abroad in an attempt to find her, but with no success. Flashing forward a few years, we learn the reason that Vera was not traceable: she is now a famous actress under the name of Эллен Кэй, Ellen Kay.
Dolskii is now back in Russia and his friend invites him to the theatre, where he is amazed to see Vera performing. Backstage, Vera receives his carte de visite, and deliberates over welcoming him, but ultimately does.
He professes his love for her, the enormity of his mistake. But as she tells him, it’s too late: “I loved you once, but now my love has been extinguished”. She understandably takes a little pleasure in rejecting him, but the truth is simply that she has moved on with her life.
Prince Dolskii heeds this as the wakeup call he needs to get on with his life, too. Just kidding again! He shoots himself: Конец (the end).
Сумерки женской души (translit. Sumerki zhenskoi dushi) aka The Twilight of a Woman’s Soul was Yevgeni Bauer’s début film, and reveals a fully-fledged filmmaker even at this early hour. It is staged beautifully and the story flows well, and features wonderful compositions.
It’s astonishing enough that a director could spring up so fully formed, but The Twilight of a Woman’s Soul also features a rare early instance of a tracking shot. In the first section of the film, the camera follows Vera as she moves forward:
Tracking shots were popularized by Italian film Cabiria, released the following year. They had appeared in films before that, but only in rare and isolated instances; so Bauer (and/or his cameraman, Nikolai Kozlovskii) using one here is almost unprecedented.
Due to its content, Swedish censors banned The Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, and I would not be surprised if the same was true elsewhere. The film is in no way graphic, but it deals with rape and its aftermath in ways that are still relatable today. My friend Hanna at Le Rêve Transformé said it best:
Although there are many early films that use (he threat of) rape as a cheap way to provide thrills and tension, this is the earliest film I’ve ever seen where rape actually happens in a non exploitative way and the consequences are addressed, and one of the few films in general where the consequences aren’t about (the men’s) revenge but about the woman’s trauma and healing. And then the fact that she does survive and heal makes it the rarest kind of movie, I think.
An impressive début, and a film that holds up well, over a century later.
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