Tuesday, 3 April 2012
#34 Denmark — Michael (1924)
This one is a bit dubious with regards to country-of-origin, but I'm counting it because Dreyer was Danish.
I never thought that a film about a homosexual relationship could be made in the '20s until I saw Michael. By today's standards all the allusions are incredibly subtle, but by the those of the day, it's incredible that the film was even released.
The titular character is a young model who catapulted an older artist to fame and now lives with him as an adopted son/lover. As the film progresses, he becomes more distant from his painter and closer to a princess whom his master is capturing.
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the film is the art direction. The architecture and decoration of the rooms are astoundingly beautiful; the giant head statue, the water fountain and many other features make the mansion feel very grandiose and a work of art in itself.
The art is all excellently captured by the cinematography, which makes strong use of deep focus (anyone who says that Citizen Kane invented deep focus simply hasn't seen enough early German cinema) to create complex framings and give the large rooms a greater sense of space. As Dreyer would go on to perfect in his later films (most notably The Passion of Joan of Arc), close-ups are put to good use, effectively capturing all the emotion in the character's faces.
Unfortunately, the aforementioned emotion doesn't really take any skill to capture, which brings me to my main gripe about the film: the melodrama. The whole film is rife with super-sentimentality and overacting. It seems impossible that the same man who made this film would go on to direct an incredibly subtle performance, decades ahead of its time only four years later, or show such a masterful understanding of the depths and intricacies of emotion in Ordet (which is his masterpiece in my humble opinion). For all of Michael's beauty and historical intrigue, it is forced to be a minor film in Dreyer's oeuvre with its uncharacteristic presentation style.
It would, however, be a mistake to avoid the film just because of the melodrama, as there are a number of important and well explored themes contained within. I love films about artists, as I always feel they are in some way autobiographical for the director (being a firm believer in auteur theory) and reflect their views of art and the problems with creating it. Michael is no different and gives very interesting insight into the way that an artist interacts with their subjects and how the painter-model or director-actor relationship affects them in their private lives. Youth is also an important theme, especially the understanding of others due to the stage of life that one is at and how different ages view people and the world in different ways.
Although the over-sentimentality does damage the film somewhat, Michael is still worth watching as an interesting example of early gay cinema, a work of great aesthetic beauty and a great study of the relationship between an artist and their subject.
Also recommended from Denmark:
Other films by Carl Theodore Dreyer (Vampyr, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Ordet)
Lars Von Trier (Dancer in the Dark, Breaking the Waves, Europa)
Thomas Vinterberg (Festen)
Benjamin Christensen (Häxan)
Gabriel Axel (Babette's Feast)