A movie log formerly known as Bookishness / By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Monday, February 13, 2017

Master of the House (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1925)

Master of the House, Carl Theodor Dreyer's silent comedy-drama, is an ironic title, one attached to the film for its release in English-speaking countries. The original Danish title translates as Thou Shalt Honor Thy Wife, and the play by Sven Rindom on which it was based was called Tyrannens fald -- The Tyrant's Fall. It's also misleading to call it a comedy-drama, although it has moments of mild humor and a happy ending. The tone is seriocomic, or as the original title -- which is echoed in the film's concluding intertitle -- suggests, it's a moral fable. Viktor Frandsen (Johannes Meyer), the master of the house, is an ill-tempered bully, constantly berating his wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), who does everything she can to placate him. For example, she asks him whether he wants the meat she will serve him for lunch to be cold or warm. He answers, as usual irritably, as if he can't be bothered with such mundane matters, that he wants it cold. And then, later, when it's served, he snaps, "Couldn't you have found time to warm it up?" Life for Ida is constant drudgery, taking care of routine household chores, as well as looking after three children, the oldest of which is the pre-teen Karen (Karin Nellemose), whom Ida tries to spare from any of the harder chores that might roughen her hands. What little help Ida gets comes from Viktor's old nanny, known to the family as Mads (Mathilde Nielsen), who drops in to help Ida with the mending -- and to cast a disapproving eye on Viktor's bullying. Eventually, Mads arranges with Ida's mother (Clara Schønfeld) for Ida to escape from the household and rest. More worn out than she knew, Ida has a breakdown, and during her prolonged absence Mads takes over the household and whips Viktor into shape. The story arc is a familiar one -- we've seen it done on TV sitcoms and in Hollywood family comdies -- but it gains strength from the performances and from Dreyer's masterly control of the story and use of the camera. Although Viktor looks like a sheer monster at first, we gain understanding of him when we learn, well into the film, that he is out of work: His business has failed. His absence from the house during the day goes unexplained, although we see him walking the streets and dropping into a neighborhood bar. Nielsen, who had also played the role of Mads on stage, is a marvelous presence in the film, although Dreyer never questions whether, as a nanny who used to administer whippings to Viktor, she might not bear some responsibility for the way he turned out as a man. Best of all, the film gives us a semi-documentary glimpse of what daily life was like for a lower-middle-class family in 1920s Denmark (and presumably elsewhere that modern home appliances hadn't yet taken up some of the burden of housework). Dreyer's meticulous attention to detail -- he served as his own art director and set decorator -- extended to the construction of a four-walled set (walls could be removed to provide camera angles) with working plumbing and electricity and a functioning stove, and he makes the most of it. Master of the House is not quite the pioneering feminist film some would have it be: Ida is a little too sweetly passive even after Viktor reforms. But it's an important step in the growth of Dreyer's moral aesthetic and of his artistry as a filmmaker.

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