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Sylvie Van den Elsen,
In the elegant world of artists and musicians, Gertrud ends her marriage to Gustav and takes a lover, the composer Erland Jansson. When he also fails to live up to her idealistic standards, she leaves him and imposes on herself a kind of exile of the heart. In flashbacks and in conversations laced with memories, we also learn of her affair with Gabriel, who still wishes she would go off with him, and we learn of her adolescence, with its early expression of her isolating ideal of absolute love. Written by
When you first start watching it, the film feels like a bad SNL sketch where the host hasn't memorized his lines, constantly looking at cue cards. The actors here are often speaking unemotionally about incredibly emotional subjects -- sometimes appropriately (fearing the other person's reaction), sometimes inexplicably -- and tend to never be looking in each other's eyes at the same time. The film is set up with long, hypnotic takes as a staged play, with the actors sometimes moving into new positions just to appear more stage-like. At first, it takes you out of the story -- it seems like inept filmmaking, but because we know it's deliberate (it's not shoddily made, just different) I stuck with it. It takes a few to get into the style and familiarize ourselves with the bareness; it's not so much that it's boring as that it's largely silent.
The characters exist both as mouthpieces for Carl Dreyer and as people in real situations. (Aside from Erland's naturalness and Gertrud's presence, you could say the acting is generally unpleasant.) They give lengthy speeches always, they pause, their movement and reactions are not authentic life behavior or "normal" film acting. Yet this film is one of the greatest examinations of marital commitment on film. But it's more than that. It's about knowing by experience, and big ideas nothing less than Womanhood and Love, the pleasure of the flesh that results in an ignoring of the soul, the path of the artist and an argument against fatalism. The film is like a dream where all your subconscious thoughts and conscious feelings are spoken openly and plainly, as if you're possessed. Everything is open; no one, not the characters or Dreyer, insults us with any unnecessary treats. I actually watched the movie with the lights on, purposely, so I wouldn't get absorbed in the story, so I could always be aware of what was really going on.
So it's about marriage and love and commitment on one simple level -- there's a joke about it, too: the opera Gertrud says she's going to is "Fidelio." Gertrud says she's leaving her husband; another man, Lidman, a celebrated poet, wants her; and she's having an affair with a young musician, Erland. The film is really a scrapbook for Dreyer's various theories. Gertrud tells Erland, the musician, to play a nocturne -- one of his own, though, not someone else's. Why copy or interpret someone else when you can be yourself? Sometimes you need someone like Gertrud (or Dreyer) to remind you of that simple truth. And it hits home because Dreyer is what he preaches. The characters are always talking directly to us -- a character begs Gertrud to elaborate, "Things are easier when one understands" (of course we don't), someone tells Gertrud, "How beautifully you sang. As if I had never heard the song before." Dreyer is talking about himself -- he's the artist showing us things we never saw before that we've been looking at all along.
The self-congratulatory tone that hammers us did try my patience, however. There is a musical procession for the poet, and they sing a song to his face about what a truthful artist he is, an artist who refuses false pathos, sentimentality, and derides the mediocre hidden underneath a shiny veneer. This is all fine and good, but Dreyer didn't have to make it so damn obvious he's talking about what a great artist he himself is. He could be a little more broad. He seems to be rubbing our faces in how inaccessible he knows his film will be -- the screen is constantly so bright that it whites out the actors' faces, and he has Gertrud at one point comment on the light hurting her eyes. That's my small quibble that prevents me from giving this a ten, but I wouldn't argue with those who call it a masterpiece. Myself, I rank this among my essential movies for "life," movies you return to every few years that will (or at least should) stay new, because they're about human ideas and nothing else. They may not give answers, but they deepen our feeling and understanding about life's simplest issues in very profound ways. 9/10
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