Friday, June 04, 2010

Carl Dreyer and Gertrud

Via David Bordwell (first, and other sites since), I see that a new English language site devoted to Carl Theodor Dreyer is on line. There's a good overview at the Bioscope site - it's a thing of beauty. Biographical info, info on the making of films, discussion of films, essays on his methods, his style, and a huge array of photographs, film clips, archival material - amazing.

It happens that this week I finally got around to (re)watching Gertrud - I've had it sitting on the shelf for the last 6 months or so, my usual habit with DVDs. I have seen it before - back in the 90s, at Harvard, with Ray Carney himself in attendance. He got into an argument across the auditorium with a woman who had the temerity to laugh at something that might, in fact, have been a joke. (It might have been the line near the beginning when Kanning asks Gertrud why she is laughing - she says she's only smiling: she's barely that...)

It is hard to say what I thought of it then - I can quote myself: "Very slow, austere film about a woman married to a politician who has an affair with a musician who doesn't love her so after far more talk than is necessary moves away to Paris and lives a lonely but apparently fulfilled life. Hard to get a handle on." Still - it must have stuck with me - I would come across references to it, effusive praise often enough, and I would have an idea what they meant. I read Carney's Dreyer book, and recognized the movie in it. I knew there was something there, but could not quite presume to say what.

So finally I have gotten around to watching it again. And I think, in fact, it is something like a masterpiece. Maybe not Dreyer's best (though that is very good indeed), but a superb work nonetheless. It is, undeniably, a very strange film - strange looking, strangely put together. I don't know that it looks like anything else - it seems that critics called it old-fashioned when it came out, but did films anywhere ever look like this? Those stiff, static poses, the flat line readings, the lack of any overt reaction or emotion? It's not like a silent film - it doesn't intensify the pure visuals - it tends to freeze the images - people in the middle distance, unmoving, or moving in slow precise patterns, shadowed by the camera. It isn't theatrical, exactly, either - if it were on stage, it would be as strange and uncanny as it is on film.

That seems to be the strategy at work - the style mutes the emotions, it puts them in quotes, rather than acting them out. It is anti-representational, anti-illusionist - it does not try to enact its story as if it were real people in a real place - it presents them, as artificially as puppet theater. The actors/characters tell you the story, more than show it. And everything in the style works to maintain this attitude. Though as it happens, the story itself is more emotionally complex than it might seem - the characters are hard to get a read on, as characters. Gertrud is selfish and demanding, though also sympathetic - the men around her take her for granted - offer her less and less, and finally she seems to recognize that she really doesn't need what they can offer. And the men too - they are believable types (at least) - they make decisions, and live with consequences, and regret them... Dreyer seems to keep us closest to Gertrud's perspective, but not absolutely - and makes the shifting perspectives and relationships one of the organizing principals of the film's style. The camera movement, the choreography, all create a fluid physical representation of the psychic ebb and flow of the story. (You can find plenty of discussion of that aspect of Dreyer's style in Carney book.)

Though looking at it again - the writer who really got it right was Jacques Rivette. In the course of an altogether unedifying (and one-sided) argument over Getrud with the inimitable (thankfully) Dan Schneider, one of the interlocutors posted a quote, taken - as it happens - from this old Cahiers roundtable discussion. (Or possibly Jonathan Rosenbaum's reference to the same passage.) I shall quote, almost in full:
if Dreyer's film, more "logical," in any case more chronological, [than Straub's Not Reconciled, I think] doesn't doesn't function formally as a dream, it nevertheless also prescribes an "oneiric" vocabulary: at once the telling of a dream and a session of analysis (an analysis in which the roles are unceasingly changing; subjected to the flow, the regular tide of the long takes, the mesmeric passes of the incessant camera movements, the even monotone of the voices, the steadiness of the eyes -- always turned aside, often parallel, towards us: a little above us -- the strained immobility of the bodies, huddled in armchairs, on sofas behind which the other silently stands, fixed in ritual attitudes which make them no more than corridors for speech to pass through, gliding through a semi-obscurity arbitrarily punctuated with luminous zones into which the somnambulists emerge of their own accord...).

Seeing it now - that is dead on. Seeing it now, with Rivette in mind, you can't miss the parallels. Time and again, characters assume the position of a session of analysis (as much as it is anything) - one person behind the other, usually one sitting, one standing, or sitting above the other person - turned away from each other, each talking in turns (taking turns - lines of dialogue are kept distinctly separate here), often enough about - dreams, emotions, values and desires, in almost clinical tones.... But as Rivette notes - the positions change, the roles change - one stands and the other sits - they take turns speaking.... And I noticed that quite often - it is the character in the "doctor's" position (behind the other) who speaks, as if they were the patient. Which strikes me as another means of running variations on the patterns....

It's interesting as well that there are scenes in the film that explicitly stage many of these very relationships. That is - that if the doctor/patient positions of Analysis are one of the characteristic staging strategies of the film - it is notable that at least one scene depicts this relationship in fact.

In this shot, Axel is Gertrud's doctor (she fainted; he gave her a pill.) He is also, explicitly, studying psychology and psychiatry, and tells her so. And here - he leans behind her as she talks, explicitly, about her father, about her ideas about marriage and fate, and eventually about her dreams - prompted, as it happens, by Axel's reference to his Paris discussions of dreams and symbols...

It's interesting as well that Dreyer does something like this with the staging, as well. All those shots of people standing or sitting next to each other, looking past one another -

- look, in fact, as if they were looking at one another in mirrors: and sure enough, Dreyer makes the pattern explicit: they stand in exactly the positions they have through the bulk of the film, but this time - the mirror is really there.

It's an interesting strategy, what I would call providing a naturalistic instance of a convention. There is a lot of this in the film. It is like telling a dream - and contains the telling of dreams; it is like a dream - and has dream sequences; it is as artificial as an opera - and contains songs. It seems to spell out the types of formal elements that will make it up - to include direct instances of them, along with the many variations on their conventions.... A fascinating film...

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