At Roulettenberg, a fictitious spa somewhere in Central Europe, 1865. In the
Garden of the Grand Hotel, outside the casino, Alexei, age twenty-five, a tutor
to the General’s family, encounters Pauline, the General’s ward, with whom he is
in love, and tells her he followed her instructions to pawn her jewelry and
gamble with the proceeds -- but lost. The General, a middle-aged man smitten
with the much younger opportunist Blanche, enters with her, the coldly shrewd
Marquis and an Englishman, Mr. Astley. Questioned about his losses, Alexei
claims the money was his own, from the salary he had saved. When the others
suggest that a person in his modest position ought not to gamble, Alexei
irritablyand replies that life is too short to save money gradually. The General
has just received a telegram from "Babushke," Pauline’s Grandma in Moscow, and
goes off with the others to send a reply; they are all waiting for the old lady
to die and leave them her money so they can gamble with it.
Pauline returns, annoyed that she now cannot repay her debts to the insidious
Marquis. Alexei insists on his infatuation with her, but she senses cold greed
beyond his hysteria. Their conversation is interrupted by the General, who has
just borrowed money from the Marquis and gives Alexei a large bill to get
changed. Pauline capriciously dares Alexei -- if he really loves her enough to
do anything she asks -- to go and flirt with a German Baroness sitting in the
park, thereby annoying her husband. He does so, creating a stir and causing the
Baron and Baroness to leave.
In the lobby of the Grand Hotel, the General reprimands Alexei for his
behavior. When the young man shows no sign of contrition, the General fires him.
Alexei sticks to the view that he should be allowed to act as he wishes without
interference. When Alexei leaves for a moment, the General tries unsuccessfully
to enlist the Marquis’ help in dealing with him to prevent a scandal. As the two
older men move off, Alexei returns, reflecting that everything is Pauline’s
fault: it was she who put him up to addressing the Baroness. Astley greets
Alexei, and they discuss the cause of the General’s apprehension: he is afraid
any scandal might jeopardize his hopes of winning Blanche. At some point, it
seems, Blanche had tried to borrow money from the Baron, causing a complaint
from the Baroness. Since the Baron and Baroness are important people, the
General wants to avoid further offending them. As the two men talk, Blanche
passes through in search of the General. Astley goes on to explain that the
General cannot propose to Blanche until he gets his inheritance from Grandma.
Alexei takes the cynical view that since Pauline too will have an inheritance,
she will then fall prey to the rapacious Marquis.
Astley takes his leave as the Marquis appears, bent on controlling Alexei’s
behavior at the behest of the General. Finding the young man resistant, the
Marquis wonders aloud how best to get around him, then produces a note from
Pauline telling Alexei to stop acting like a schoolboy. Alexei calls the Marquis
a usurer and a parasite, accusing him of making Pauline write the note. As
Alexei leaves angrily, Blanche and the General appear, asking whether the
Marquis had any success in dealing with Alexei. The Marquis pretends he had
success, then turns to his chief topic of interest, Grandma’s imminent demise:
how soon do they expect news of her?
No sooner has the General predicted her death that very night than Grandma’s
voice is heard: she has arrived at the hotel, a picture of health. Though she
greets Pauline with a certain affection, she quickly sees through the poses of
the others. She announces she is over her illness and wants to recuperate at the
spa, where she also looks forward to gambling. Blanche suspects the General of
false promises, while the Marquis hopes his usual deceit and hypocrisy will be
sufficient to deal with the old lady.
In an anteroom of the casino, the General is beside himself: Grandma has been
gambling and losing large amounts, ignoring all entreaties to stop. His hopes of
success with Blanche are evaporating. When the Marquis steps in to announce that
Grandma’s losses are up to 40,000, the General decides it is time to call the
police: surely they will see that she is senile and irresponsible, perhaps even
send her to an asylum. No such luck, the Marquis assures him. Blanche makes
another brief appearance, disillusioned with the General.
When Alexei arrives, the General and the Marquis try to enlist his help in
stopping Grandma from ruining them all. Prince Nilsky, who has been showing
interest in Blanche, enters the salon and mentions that the old lady’s losses
have increased; this causes the General to collapse, momentarily stunned, before
running into the casino. Blanche leaves with Nilsky. Alexei ponders the fate
overtaking his erstwhile employer’s family: his love for Pauline is the only
thing that still connects him to them. Pauline appears, but his words to her are
constrained, and the two are soon interrupted by Grandma, who is brought in
looking tired. Having spent all the money she brought, she now wants to return
to Moscow and has asked Astley to lend her enough for the train fare. When she
invites Pauline to accompany her, the girl says she cannot leave just yet. As
Grandma is carried off, the General comes back from the casino, fulminating that
he has been disgraced by her losses and has lost Blanche to Nilsky.
In his room at the hotel, Alexei finds Pauline waiting to show him a letter
from the Marquis. As Alexei reads it, he realizes that the Marquis, pressured by
loans he has made to the General, is trying to get Pauline to pay her debts to
him by suggesting that if he were forced to sue, her own inheritance would be in
jeopardy. Flattered that Pauline has turned to him for help, Alexei runs from
the room like a madman.
In the gambling hall, Alexei joins a group of seasoned gamblers who discuss
his every play as he wins repeatedly, finally quitting at 200,000. This breaks
the bank, and the tables are closed for the evening. After an entr’acte, the
other patrons are still discussing his phenomenal luck. Gathering his winnings,
Alexei returns to his room, where in a daze he imagines the voices of the
croupiers and the comments of his fellow gamblers. In due time he realizes
Pauline is there, waiting for him, and he offers her the 50,000 she needs to
repay the Marquis. She refuses and asks whether he really loves her. For a
moment it appears he is responding: they will go away together. Then, turning
harsh again, Pauline demands the money, saying her love is just a commodity.
When Alexei hands it to her, she throws it in his face and runs out. Alexei is
left alone, dementedly recalling how he won twenty times in a row.