Daydreams is a story about love, grief, and the blindness that can result from these states. As the story opens, Sergei Nedelin (Aleksandr Vyrubov) is mourning his wife Elena, whom he had loved passionately.
Out walking one day, he sees a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Elena (and indeed is played by the same actress, N. Chernobaeva). He walks after her, seeing in her the ghost of Elena and gaining her attention: “You were mistaken,” she tells him coolly. But he follows her anyway, to a theatre where she is performing in a production of Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Robert le diable (1831). This performance, which we watch with Sergei, is the main set piece of the film: wonderfully gothic and spooky. Viz.:
Convinced that the actress, Tina, is the reincarnation of Elena, he calls upon her, and the two become involved. But the relationship is doomed from the start. They are both insensitive people; Sergei doesn’t see Tina as a real person and treats her without care, and Tina is vulgar and calculating, mainly concerned with taking advantage of Sergei. Inevitably, the two clash; when Sergei asks Tina why she is angry, she retorts: “Because I am bored with your love for Elena!” He is stunned by the idea that she could resent being used as a substitute for a dead woman:
In the film’s final scene, Sergei is in disturbed spirits when Tina arrives to his house. Tina goes to console him, but then asks: “Are you forgetting about your Elena at last?” His look is answer enough.
Finally, the long-simmering fuse is lit. Tina keeps pushing him; commenting on the portrait of Elena on the wall (“but she’s not bad looking!”), picking up a picture of her from the desk, all to Sergei’s visibly growing alarm. But it’s when Tina takes out the plaited length of Elena’s hair that he keeps in an ornamental box (see the GIF above of him smelling/kissing it) that he really starts to lose it. Tina taunts him:
To Sergei’s immense horror, Tina prances around with the hallowed tresses, mockingly pretending to wear the length of hair as a boa, a scarf, a belt.
I’m sure you can guess the outcome of this action …
A contemporary review noted that the production was very satisfactory, but was also somewhat critical: “The plot gives sufficient material for a film drama but in this film it is used with insufficient skill […] the second part appears superfluous.” (Проектор | The Projektor, 1915). But in my opinion, this film is very strong. It brings together Bauer’s gothic sensibility, his emphasis on psychology, and his interest in the complexity of relationships with great style. As always, it’s beautifully staged and composed, and like The Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, features an evocative tracking shot.
The opera scene is a highlight. I had only heard of Meyerbeer’s opera in passing, but I always enjoy the macabre. As a point of interest, Daydreams is based on Georges Rodenbach’s novel Bruges-la-Morte (1892), known for being a key work of Symbolism, for being the first work of fiction illustrated with photographs, and for possibly indirectly influencing the plot of Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). Although I have not read it, available synopses state that Robert le diable also figures in the plot of the novella.
Also interesting is the way Elena appears to Sergei as a vision on two occasions during the film: at his house, before the final scene (shown below), and immediately before he strangles Tina. How to interpret this – a warning, a sanction, or simply proof of Sergei’s lessening grip on reality? Whatever the case, it certainly spurs him on to commit the murder.
In The Magic Mirror: Moviemaking in Russia, 1908-1918, Denise Jeanne Youngblood writes of how Bauer sets up a contrast between the Victorian, pure Elena, and the modern, brash Tina.
Elena has a sweet, bland face; long, flowing tresses; a loving, retiring manner; and of course, she is dead. […] Tina, on the other hand, is bold and vivacious, with her hair done up in a modern style. We see her initially as the flâneuse who so disturbed European men in the modern era: striding along, alone, in a public space, looking at a strange man directly, openly, without shame of fear.
Under such a dichotomy (which, it must be said, is uncharacteristic of Bauer), a mobile, déclassée woman like Tina must be punished for her transgressions against society and for leading a ‘good’ man like Sergei astray – strangling her with the hair of her saintly doppelgänger is just a very literal way of enacting this penalty. In Daydreams, this opposition is somewhat mitigated by the fact that Sergei is, at least to my mind, also rather unsympathetic; perhaps he was meant to be perceived as a tragic figure brought to the brink by a woman’s wickedness, but his casually cruel behaviour undercuts that interpretation. Ultimately, I suppose there are two ways to interpret the story: women as the root of problems (whether by dying inopportunely, as Elena; or living presumptuously, as Tina), or a broader tale about flawed people and human psychology. My reading tends towards the latter, while recognizing the archetypal nature of the female characters. All in all, it’s an intriguing and well-made film.
Грёзы [Daydreams]. Dir. Yevgeni Bauer. Russian Empire: Khanzhonkov, 1915. Available on this DVD by Milestone Films.