Apart from a few people who were familiar with the genre, the Lexi/U3A audience this time was bemused.
There are many themes one could explore in the film based on the Pushkin novella: gambling, good versus evil, greed, the supernatural, the unpredictability of life, the recklessness of youth, pride and greed, etc… The film is simple in its narrative but the abundance of mise-en-scene visual symbols and devices makes it open to diverse interpretations. I would like to concentrate on the theme that interest me: the representation of old age.
An aside: it is said that the novella’s old countess was based on Princesse Nathalie Galitzine who was a highly educated noblewoman. She was known for her beauty and dancing skills. She spent time at Versailles and the Russian court. Eventually she became lady-in-waiting to Catherine the Great. She also took an interest in her farms and became an honorary member of the Scientific and Economic Society. She became known at Princess Moustache, I presume because the facial hair in her old age, as she died aged 97. Does facial hair erase a lifetime of achievement?
Apart from the countess there are many old characters in this film.
The notary who looks after Herman’s savings is an untidy glutton. He advises Herman “I am fifty four… my advice to you is to be content, as I am. Take life as you find it”. But Herman is ambitious and proud and replies “I would rather take life by the throat…”
The bookseller, bearded with wispy white hair and gnarled fingers and a high malevolent voice. His shop is full of books higgledy pickledy on the shelves, the tables and even the floor. He recommends a book about the strange secrets of the count of St. Germain. It contains the true stories of people who sold their souls in return for wealth power or influence : “who knows what you may learn from it”
There are old beggars in the crowd scenes and old servants in the countess’ house. A doddering old general appears at the ball. But more intriguing are the Countess’ three female servants who attend to her personal comfort. There is the nanny figure with a kind face who is also seen comforting Lizavetta, a middle aged woman who fetches and carries under the nanny’s orders and a third mysterious figure who hovers around the others. She is thin and bent double, with a large shawl over her head and shoulders . These three figures do evoke three ages of women. In particular the very old woman who seems to have no function and moves around unnoticed by the others. The audience’s attention is however beckoned when in a brief scene she creeps in the empty countess’ chamber. She steals a sweet from the dressing table and totters out. Could this very old woman signify death?
Finally we have the old countess. In appearance she is like a grotesque pantomime dame. She sports an extravagantly elaborate high wig with layers of big curls and feathers and bows and ribbons. Her dress is similarly adorned with flounces and frills and bows. In the opera scenes, she wears a monstrous coat lined with fur. Abundant jewellery and a garland of flowers decorate her dress. She moves painfully around aided by a walking stick, resentful of any help. In the ballroom scene she is again dressed in this fussy manner. It is in the scene where Herman has come to beg for her secret that would make him a fortune that she is seen without the paraphernalia. A shawl over her shoulders and a blanket over her knees, she could be any old woman. Unfortunately the make up shows unconvincing folds and wrinkles on her face framed by a frilly nightcap, but Edith Evans’ acting is superb.
Her behaviour is part witch and part old woman stereotype. The countess is irascible and contradictory, she bullies her staff. She is cruel to her ward Lizaveta and humiliates her. But she attends social occasions where people present her their respects and young men are introduced to her. As an ageing old woman she shows confusion and forgetfulness. She also falls asleep time and again, and complains of feeling cold. Her love for her lapdog completes the picture. When Herman appears in her bedroom she does not utter a word. She looks at him and remains impassive to his requests, his arguments or his begging. It is when he threatens her with a pistol that she shows terror. She makes the sign of the cross and dies. As a ghost she haunts and drives Herman insane and unable to play the winning cards.
The countess is the main link between the old and the young. Her young reckless self is discovered as Herman reads the story of the lucky cards in St. Germain’s book. She is betrayed and robbed by her lover in the same way that Lizavetta is betrayed by Herman who uses her to get to the countess.
It can be argued that beneath the gambling and ghost story the film shows the youth as beautiful, but foolish. The dashing young men are only interested in gambling, drink and women and Herman is ambitious, greedy and ruthless. The young women are naive and easily seduced. The old however, apart from a caring, kind nanny look rather repulsive but possess wisdom, knowledge and the key to happiness.