Evgeny Bauer is never subtle. Most of his films begin or end with a tragedy, often creating worlds and moods that flow from death to death before a final cut to black that jolts you with how sudden it is. Rarely, though, does he get as playful as he does here with his depictions of movement through time and space (both real and imagined). Daydreams is easily his weirdest film, paring the plot and action to its bare bones in order to make us pay closer attention to the presentation itself. Bauer deploys all his trademarks and favorite techniques, but screws with them just enough to make you wonder just what in the hell is actually going on for most of its runtime.
Bauer’s consistency of vision is one of my favorite things about watching and re-watching his work. I can also kind of see how it could become exhausting. The man has exactly one thing on his mind, and that thing is heartbreak. He’s intent on mining the psychologies of broken hearts until they’re fractals bleeding out onto the floor. Daydreams seems to be acutely aware of this, and so does a pretty severe 180 and drops any cuteness or subtext altogether. Bauer has always set his films firmly within the tragic headspaces of his characters, but with this feature he goes further and abandons all hope completely. Daydreams is very firmly set in Hell.
All of this information is conveyed visually. Bauer’s title cards are, as always, minimal and efficient. But there are several ways to work out the narrative he’s threading throughout the film just below the surface of a story about a man who misses his dead wife.
Bauer’s use of the fairly standard cinematic tricks of the time tell a bizarre story in Daydreams. Opening on a quick, immediately disorienting shot of N. Tschernobajewa against a black void, we cut to Sergei and his wife, Elena, as she lays on her deathbed. He cuts a braid from her hair and falls onto her, and as the shot fades slowly to black it leaves only the brightly lit body on the bed, Sergei disappearing into the same black void as in the opening shot. Bauer’s reliance on camerawork such as this is always evident, most famously in his favoring the double-exposed “ghost” effect seen in almost all of his films. But this is something new, and it’s neither an accident nor incidental.
Sergei moves about the house in a daze, staggered by the loss of his wife, his “most sacred.” He walks zombie-like down a flight of stairs, from the brightly-lit landing to the first floor and towards more darkness. And it’s here that things turn incredibly weird very quickly and never look back.
The editing of the film is some of the most playfully sinister of Bauer’s filmography. A cut from inside to outside of Sergei’s house is an early example of this. Rather than simply jumping from one location to the next, it feels almost supernatural, like the characters are being moved and manipulated by some outside force. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Bauer is being self-referential or meta here – less because I don’t think he was capable but more that this was never something at the front of this mind. And, anyway, that reading adds little to the aggressively fearful tone of the film as he’s establishing it in the early goings here. Rather, it’s the feeling of puppets being swung from strings, or on a track with no agency other than at the whims of some dark, doomed fate. Surely this is suggested strongly by the presence around seemingly every corner of some far-off observers, lurking at the edges of every frame.
As Sergei goes for his walk, we can see these dark characters peeking out from behind a building or stepping out from the shadows. They are never once noticed or acknowledged, but their presence adds another layer of dread to an already shaky hold on any shared reality coming from the screen. One even waits in the shadow of an awning, his face completely blacked out by his position in the sunlight, before stepping forward and revealing himself. Again, this is all to convey that this is not the natural world that Sergei has stepped out into. This is something else entirely.
The first vision of the “living image of Elena” is also strange, coming as it does in the middle of this moving camera shot (another rarity for Bauer). Sergei simply falls back in shock at the sight of what looks to be his dead wife walking past him in the street. He calls to her, and she simply replies “You’re wrong.” Strong Lynch vibes here, and I’m convinced – though I can’t find evidence of this – that Lynch is among the many filmmakers working today who have taken inspiration from Bauer’s ghostly body of work.
All throughout, the film is the most extreme version of Bauer’s standard operating procedure he’s offered us. We feel not only the pain of loss and the sting of regret at having lost the one we love, but we see also the lengths we are sometimes willing to go to in order to hang onto some piece of the past. The braid, cut from Elena’s deathbed, now resides in a glass box. We see Sergei periodically go to it, caress it, admire it. This is less the story of him missing his wife and more that he has found a way to keep her with him forever. But it’s not her. He can convince himself that she’ll never leave him now, that he can control the memory of her, even recreate her in the image of Tina, the actress he meets on the street and mistakes for her. This is all to his own benefit. Since we cannot grieve for ourselves in death, we are left to others’ memories and how those we’ve left behind will keep us in their minds and hearts. This was the sting at the end of Child of the Big City, and it’s further explored here, only in much darker detail.
Would Elena have wanted to live forever, to be kept in a glass box and turned into a living tribute? We don’t know, and Sergei doesn’t much care. For him, now, it’s all about how Elena made him feel. With her, he felt whole, like a person with a life. He had someone to say his name and tell him he was loved. Alone, he’s obsessed with the image of her in his mind. We never meet the real, living Elena, so we only see her as Sergei sees her. What he sees is not love, to my eyes, but horror.
Watching the performance of Robert the Devil and seeing Tina command the spirits of the dead in revolt against the demon, Sergei is overcome with grief. He gets to witness his Elena rise from the grave. This is his Hell. He doesn’t need her back so much as he needs to believe that he can have her back anytime he wants. His wish is granted in the form of her doppelgänger.
Daydreams occupies the space of Sergei’s emotional breakdown and, true to Bauer’s form, follows this path all the way to its ultimate conclusion. The entire world bends to create a mini-universe of despair that we inhabit for the film’s runtime. Bauer, throughout his career, was equally emotional, intellectual, and political in his filmmaking, but Daydreams stands apart from the rest as the true thesis statement on his aims.
Grieving, whether for a death or a piece of our lives now lost, always darkens the world around us. It feels like Hell, and we can imagine that our own deaths, or banishment to an actual underworld, might bring comfort. We look around and claw desperately to some memorabilia, ashes in an urn, or a love letter from someone long out of our lives. To imagine that we could reconstruct that old life, in fact recreate the ones we’ve lost, is a fantasy too good to pass up. Even in the face of cold realization at the true insanity of this, it can be hard to break from such thinking.
But is it better to meet someone new, to turn them into the one torn from us before we were ready? Certainly this is just as deep a betrayal, and in the end cannot work. What we lose is what should harden us even as it softens our hearts. Sergei doesn’t cherish the moments he had with Elena, but insists that they cannot end. This is selfishness he isn’t prepared to face in himself. He can keep pieces of her in a box, he can frame her portrait and hang it on his wall, and he can dress his new girlfriend in his dead wife’s clothes and jewelry. But the illusion won’t hold.
The daydreams we see onscreen are to teach us something about how we love each other and how we can become better at accepting love from others. Our biggest and most complicated obstacle is that we live in Hell. We see ourselves as unworthy of love just as quickly as we believe it is taken unfairly. We create our new Hell everyday, wishing things had turned out differently, seeing visions of ourselves in the art we love, and knowing these shadows are hiding dangers we dare not face on our own. But the true Hell we see is the damage created from stasis, of clinging to what should be (or should’ve been) instead of looking ahead and moving on. Even stopping completely is preferable, once the dust has settled, to wallowing in our own gross swamp. In the heat of passion or the deep well of depression we won’t see this. So we act out and reshape the people in our worlds to fit the Hell we need them to fill.
Bauer ends Daydreams without letting us wake from this nightmare. We take Sergei to the end of his road and simply leave him there. The films are never cold-hearted, but this is Bauer at his most sadistic. Even the knowledge that this is a self-inflicted cinematic wound tempers little of the final moments, where evil is finally allowed to flow forth through Sergei and release him from himself once and for all. But even this final act reveals, too, his complete lack of regard for those he professes to love and need, and turns squarely back onto his inherent selfishness. Being unable to articulate who he is and what he wants, he blasts his way out of Hell. On the other side he finds nothing but the grief that brought him here.