Monday, July 09, 2007

Gertrud (Dreyer, 1964)

For his final film, the Danish master, Carl Theodor Dreyer, opted to adapt a play (written by Hjalmar Söderberg) about a woman who is drawn to great men but then finds that they are incapable of offering her the depth of love that she requires. A writer, a politician and a musician comprise her past, present and (she hopes) future lovers respectively. As she carries on with an affair under her husband’s nose, word arrives that the writer will soon return to town to be honored for his influence and artistry at a special ceremony. The convergence of these three figures in Gertrud’s life put her into a state of deep self-reflection as she realizes that she is at a critical crossroads in her life. Not content to be proverbial ‘good woman’ standing behind the ‘great man’, Gertrud seeks a path that will lead towards personal fulfillment and, above all, true love.

When we first meet Gertrud, she resembles nothing so much as Nora from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, unconvincingly playing the part of doting wife to a successful husband. Her dissatisfaction registers palpably on her face, hoping to communicate to her husband an internal state she would rather not have to put into words. Past the point of putting on a brave face, Gertrud already seems to have separated herself spiritually from her daily reality, even though her body is going through the motions. Dreyer further underlines the tension by not allowing his actors to even look at each other throughout most of the first twenty-minute scene. The effect is jarring and unnatural at first; but, slowly we come to realize that Dreyer’s lack of warmth is intentional, that he has denied his players the very thing that most actors feed upon – the energy that comes through eye contact and interplay with another performer.

Surprisingly, this oppressive limiting of eye contact and direct interaction continues throughout most of the film. Characters exist in the same room and speak words that work together to make a conversation, and yet rarely do we ever feel as if they are truly connecting. At one point, Dreyer creates a beautiful picture with one character facing towards the camera and another character directly behind facing off to our left. Their bodies are so close that they merge together in our vision. And yet, the souls that give them life are miles apart. At one point, Gertrud notes that she sees life as a long chain of dreams, drifting into each other and Dreyer’s direction takes that assertion to heart. From the initial set-up, we may expect a series of tense, passionate explosions along the lines of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. Instead, we get a film that comes at loneliness and heartbreak from a completely different direction. It is almost as if Dreyer has created a film that deemphasizes the flesh that gives us form and instead delves straight for the intangible spirit that gives us spark. It is a somber film, occasionally tedious and stilted, but ultimately profound and effectively unsettling.

Risk-taking and audacity is generally associated with youth; however, Dreyer takes risks here that perhaps only an experienced director in his seventies could take. He takes one of the most conventional starting points for a drama – a woman is unsatisfied with her husband and seeks fulfillment elsewhere – and elevates it to a stirring statement on our ability to reconcile personal achievement with love for another. Drawing from a lifetime in the cinema, he drains his drama of the one thing that we would assume would drive the film forward – passion. He is able to do so because his superior sense of composition and structure are able to steer our attention towards startling truths that lie around the corner from our expectations.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you.

5:02 AM  

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