Friday, November 11, 2016

Gertrud (1964)

Denmark, 116 minutes
Director: Carl Th. Dreyer
Writers: Hjalmar Soderberg, Carl Th. Dreyer
Photography: Henning Bendtsen, Arne Abrahamsen
Music: Jorgen Jersild
Editor: Edith Schlussel
Cast: Nina Pens Rode, Bendt Rothe, Ebbe Rode, Baard Owe, Axel Strobye

I have to say I think the degree of critical regard for filmmaker Carl Th. Dreyer seems remarkable, especially given how unknown I suspect he is at large. His most famous and lauded project is a silent movie from 1928, The Passion of Joan of Arc, which very nearly perished of its own obscurity and lack of commercial success. His next-best, according to critics, is the strange and unsettling Ordet, from the '50s, which practically gets lost in its own religious obscurantism. Dreyer made a few other movies as well, including an early talkie vampire movie, though not many.

It's apparent even from these few pictures that Dreyer and his gaudy middle initial mostly dwelt in realms of the spirit. But for his final movie, made when he was in his 70s with his reputation fully restored, and thus something of an anticipated public event, he picked up his strange fixations and fastidious approaches and moved them to worldly realms of the secular. Gertrud Kanning is a middle-aged woman arrayed with four lovers, let us call them past, present, future, and future imperfect. But Dreyer (an illegitimate son of a Danish farmer and his Swedish housekeeper) doesn't let go of his religiosity so easily, and Gertrud is no libertine. "Ascetic" is probably going too far, but "austere" seems to fit the tone of Gertrud and Gertrud about as well as anything.

To be clear, because descriptions and summaries can tend to make him sound turgid and dreadful, I enjoy Dreyer's pictures and appreciate his accomplishments. Joan of Arc is a brilliant piece for its bold use of close-up, coupled with Maria Falconetti's performance (and her face). On the other hand, Ordet teeters on the edge of credibility and self-parody—you have to give it some willing suspension of disbelief before it starts to work, and even so it continually tempts doubt. Gertrud works similarly for me. It was made even with the sexual revolution and second-wave feminism bursting on the landscape around it, but it's hard to know how much this film is aware of its contemporary environment. This could just as easily be taken as a kind of reprisal of Nora Helmer in A Doll's House.

Yet even as a character who is leaving her marriage for issues of both love and independence, Gertrud seems poorly defined without a man beside her. She announces first thing in the movie that she's leaving her husband, and later that day meets with her young lover and announces she's free now, so let's get hitched. He must humiliate her before she sees how little she means to him, and even then she reaches for the next vine in the form of an old friend she begins to rekindle attachments for. Gertrud falls easily into the broad net of a "woman's picture," focusing on romance and the search for love, often tragic. Some things about it also reminded me of later Ozu. Much of the picture is dominated by dialogue in interiors, and even the camera position is slightly lowered.

A strange thrumming tone drives the action. According to Baard Owe (who plays Erland Jansson, Gertrud's young lover), when he asked Dreyer for explanation of some of the dialogue here, Dreyer told him that he wanted to make a movie about words. And it is certainly wordy, and not only that but the words can be very weird. Here, for example, is a college student extolling the virtues of the erotic poetry of Gabriel Lidman (Gertrud's past lover) in an elaborate ceremony honoring him: "In erotic ecstasy, people find eternity and infinity. This is the greatest part of your erotic idea. This is love without borders. To this idea of love, all humankind is created and called."

That's translated from the Danish, of course. Around here, we don't see that much adulation for erotic poets. Here is Gertrud, whispering sweet nothings: "I am also a mouth, seeking another's mouth." Or—and this one I really love—moments after learning of Erland's betrayal of her, she is pressed into singing, accompanied on the piano by Erland. Her song goes like this (opera singing style): "I'm not angry even if my heart is broken. In the midst of my hopelessness I see how cruelly you suffered and no anger, and no anger. Even though your brow gives a youthful glow I know how heavy your heart is. I've known it for a long time."

It casually becomes an opera in that moment, with the music advancing the narrative. For a movie this restrained, not to say soporific, to pull off something like that, almost makes you want to laugh. The narrative cycles through Gertrud as she leaves her husband, is betrayed by her lover, rejects her lover from the past, and finally comes to terms of friendship with a man, with whom she never has sex in spite of yearnings on both sides—the last scene shows them in their old age. Baard Owe was frankly puzzled by this movie though he acknowledges its strengths (which took him seeing the picture three times to see), and I guess that's about where I am. I still haven't seen it a third time, but I can feel its current going through films I like very much, such as Persona, A Woman Under the Influence, and Another Woman, even as it plainly seems to look back as well to Wild Strawberries, Ozu, and other sources. It's a weird one, that's for sure.

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