A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Gertrud (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1964)

Imagine Gertrud as a Hollywood "women's picture" of the 1940s or '50s, with Olivia de Havilland, perhaps, as Gertrud, and Claude Rains as her husband, Montgomery Clift as her young lover, and Walter Pidgeon as the old flame who comes back into her life. It's not hard to do, given that the play by Hjalmar Söderberg on which Carl Theodor Dreyer based his film has all the elements of the genre: a woman trapped in a sterile marriage; an ardent young lover who appeals to the artist trapped in her; another man who represents the road not taken that might have led her to fulfillment if she hadn't discovered that he was more committed to his work than to her. And it ends the way the Hollywood film might have: After Gertrud has rejected those three lovers and gone off to Paris with yet another man -- George Brent, perhaps -- who seemed to give her the opportunity to find herself, we see them reunite 30 or 40 years later, when she has settled into a sadly contented solitary life. There would have been a Max Steiner or Alfred Newman score to draw tears at the crisis moments -- as when, for example, Gertrud discovers that her young lover has boasted of his affair with her at a party also attended by the old flame. But this is a "women's picture" of ideas, largely about the nature of love and the way we can be deceived in the pursuit of it. And there are no melodramatic moments, merely extended conversations in which the participants rarely, if ever, make eye contact. As Gertrud, Nina Pens Rode maintains a gaze into the middle distance, rarely even blinking, whether she's telling her husband (Bendt Rothe) that she's leaving him, declaring her love for the young musician (Baard Owe) who later boasts of his conquest, or reminiscing about their past together with her old flame (Ebbe Rode). But the faint flicker of thought and emotion always plays over her face, as Henning Bendtsen's camera gazes steadily at her. It is, for those raised on the Hollywood version, something of a trying and even boring film, but for those who understand what Dreyer is doing -- grabbing the viewer's eye and keeping it trained on the characters, through long, long takes and subtle camera moments -- it creates a psychological tension that is unnerving. Dreyer makes more conventional directors' work seem frantic and frivolous.