The Gothic potboiler as devastating social critique (possible spoilers)
'The Monastory of Sendomir' is mostly filmed through a very obtrusive arch, forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of voyeur. This places him/her on the same level as the Count who sees everything, not through his own particular insight, but through the power conferred on him by his position - his servants and the army are his ever-vigilant eyes who keep a look out on his property; in almost every scene, even in his wife Elga's rooms, there is some form of armorial bearings, some emblem of the Count's power looking on, surveilling his wife and her movements.
It is significant that the Count's being cheated on is linked to his property being violated (and its heir an imposter): the secret chamber to which only he had the key being used for the illicit affair. The first time we see the Countess, she enters through an arch of the same shape (which is repeated throughout, in bedrooms, studies etc.), resting in front of a tumescent, but barely trickling fountain (itself mirrored in all the candles in the film, in particular the hoary, thick one shrunken and scarred with wax), symbolising her husband. Perhaps the arch represents some sort of female principle imposed on a film of masculine madness (narrated by the guilty man).
Most obviously, it resembles a proscenium arch, and the film pits its conflict between husband and wife in theatrical terms. Her affair is conducted like a farcical comedy of manners, with its plot elements of an older husband duped; the help of a pert, pretty maid; a handsome, but rather dim lover; the secret passages and need for deception and disguise when the truth threatens to be uncovered.
The Count's play is a heavier, gloomier thing, 'Othello' perhaps, a dour Iago by his side pushing him towards an austere, part-Biblical catastrophe. It is significant that both plays are not only gendered, but actually directed by the servants, giving the eventual destruction of the Count's hereditary mansion and his name (and mind?) a frisson of class politics. The arch also looks like a gravestone, a constant reminder of the Countess' literal fate, and the moral death forced on the Count, condemned to an earthly purgatory of social humiliation, an appropriate punishment for a man driven to play God by his sense of public shame.
The film's sensational material is made complex not just by the sobriety of Sjostrom's filming, but his characteristic refusal to judge. The film's horrors can be approached from three different perspectives. The most powerful is the Count's himself, since he narrates. Like his previous masterpieces 'The Outlaw and his Wife' and 'Terje Vigan', 'Sendomir' is a harrowing tale charting the decline of a healthy, secure man who loses everything and is driven to madness and misanthropy.
In the earlier films, the hero's downfall was occasioned by external pressures (being an outcast, poverty, war etc.), emphasised by the insistent presence of inhuman nature. There is very little nature in this film - what there is is 'corralled' by society, turned into avenues and gardens. This is an oppressively interior film, where the home is a prison. The nature in this film is the husband's inner nature beating wild beneath his civilised exterior, the role he plays, the costumes he wears. But it is a 'nature' wounded by a sense of social slight.
The first time I saw this film was on Redemption Video, and we should not forget that 'Sendomir' is Gothic film, full of atmospheric dread, an unbearably tense final half hour, with the Count as the Poe-like cuckold who chains his wife's lover, pushes her to infanticide and kills her: the setting, the medieval fortress-cum-monastary with its intricate, ironic furnishings and monumental stone is pure Poe, and is the main character in this film, where nature was in earlier Sjostrom.
The film's most astonishing sequences are a stark dawn silhouette, just before the sun rises, the countryside in pitch blackness, the lamp on the Count's carriage the only thing visible, moving like a spirit; and the intolerable focus on a dying candle, the camera holding for what seems like ages, until the flame finally peters out. The gothic statues of saints and the faceless monks at the Count's penance seem more like taunting fiends than signs of Christian redemption.
But as I say, the film is generous to its characters - the wife forced to marry an older man by her father, whose imprisonment as wife is finally literalised by the frighteningly impassive soldiers guarding the doors, the law summoned by, and propping up, her husband; and the latter's steward, whose malevolent actions are in part motivated by suppressed desire for his employer.
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