By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
Silent films often get a bad rap among the casual movie fan (outside of slapstick comedy- if you don’t find something delightful in a Chaplin, Keaton, or Lloyd film, you might not be human). It’s understandable, as most other 80-90 year old entertainment hasn’t aged so well, either.
Although I do love a good game of hoop trundling now and again
One film that may change your conception of that, though, is Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Dreyer’s direction and Maria Falconetti’s acting make it one of the most incredible dramas ever made, even without a single spoken line. I’m not reviewing that film, however, but rather my second Dreyer experience, Michael. Can it hold up to incredibly high expectations of my previous experience of his work?
This film has been embraced by the gay community as an early masterpiece of Queer Cinema, and at first I raised my eyebrow at that. After all, it is the story of an aging master painter and his young muse and protégé, whose relationship is torn asunder when a gold-digging woman seduces the young man. Certainly there are some homosexual undertones, but some clearly heterosexual plotting as well, and of course nothing overtly gay considering the time. Is this an Abraham Lincoln situation, where common period practices like sharing a bed with the same sex at Inns or writing fond letters to friends gets misinterpreted through modern eyes?
For example, remember when this was Straight?
Nope. The author of the novel it’s based on, Herman Bang (gonna leave that one alone), was definitely gay, and the novel was more explicitly so. The ballsiness of all included in making such a human, realistic film about gay characters in 1924 deserves a toast all its own. And, like Passion, this is a deeply emotional, deeply humanistic story, anchored by a powerful performance. One thing Dreyer clearly has a talent for is finding actors with preternaturally expressive eyes (Falconetti being the all time #1, sorry Chiwetel Ejiofor), and Ben Christensen, playing the painter, certainly fits the bill. So do Walter Slezak, Nora Gregor, and the very Greta Gerwig-esque Grete Mosheim.
They even have the same fashion sense!
However, Max Auzinger, the butler, only gets a few scenes, but their incredible. He’s acting on an entirely different level. The script itself is full of tragedy and betrayal, almost befitting a Shakespearean play, and Dreyer’s camerawork is stellar, and undoubtedly influential, as he uses zooms, pans, and tight close-ups more readily and ably than any of his contemporaries I can think of.
Unfortunately, the script makes one misstep- including an undercooked sideplot from the novel that has little bearing on the main plot, and really just muddies the dramatic waters (although the graveyard duel scene that it ends with is almost cool enough to salvage things).
So, as for that question I posed at the end of my introduction- no, not really. This is no undeniable masterpiece like Passion. It’s a little dry, a little slow, and more than a little melodramatic, but that coursing, primal emotion of Passion is missing, and is missed. That film is timeless, and this one is a bit dated.
Michael is an undeniably influential, well-acted, and plotted landmark of gay cinema, although you’re forgiven if you find it a bit dull at times.
Take a Drink: whenever death is discussed or foreshadowed
Take a Drink: for painting or paintings
Wanna get hammered? Take a Drink: for every intertitle
Take a Drink: whenever Charles Swift stirs the pot
Do a Shot: for the English glasses