Mikaël (1924)

21 01 2013

It’s worth mentioning before hand that I’m not a huge fan of Carl Dreyer. I admire his work more than I love it. I see the merit and can appreciate his craft, but his films tend to fall right outside of my wheelhouse. I think this is important to mention before I start talk about this film, which might not even be my personal favorite of his, but still a slightly different experience from his other works. I guess the biggest difference between a film like this one compared to Day of Wrath is that this one feels, at least to me, slightly more grounded to reality. It’s not a hard realism, but it’s not the “spiritual” film that writers assign to most of Dreyer’s best loved work.


Michael is an understudy and “adopted son” of Claude Zoret, a famous but aging artist. The two’s relationship is hinted at being romantic and physical, though obvious the age difference becomes a point of division, especially when Princess Zamikoff arrives requesting she be painted by Zoret. Michael falls hopelessly in love with her, spending less and less time with Zoret, even though the artist’s decaying mental state requires some attention. In the mean time, Michael begins stealing Zoret’s art and using them to help finance his new life with the Princess.


Dreyer deserves a ton of credit for the way he deals with the relationship with Zoret and Michael. Their romantic past is obvious, though obviously not materialized in anything physical, outside of holding hands. The film doesn’t have to spend too much time about establishing the fact that one of these men is in love with another man. Again, Dreyer deserves credit for not playing homosexuality as something bizarre. The few films from this era that do even acknowledge homosexuality, seem to suggest it’s some sort of disease. This is not the case here, and the film’s center comes from the heartbreak of Zoret and his acceptance of death. His relationship with Michael is treated as the non-issue that it should be, an intelligent move for even a modern film.


Dreyer’s personal intentions in making the film seem to underscore my sentiments. Even as the source material from Herman Bang was a more explicitly gay  text than the film, Dreyer did want this to be marketed as a “gay film” which suggests, one might argue, the intentions of the first “post-gay film” even as such a pseudo-genre had yet to get its bearings in the mainstream. Such gay films did exist, though, but I don’t want to linger on how Dreyer rejects those conventions.


Benjamin Christensen’s performance  as Claude Zoret really makes the film work. He watches the love that he and Michael share wither away as Michael’s interest shifts to Princess Zamikoff. The story sounds slightly melodramatic, and I’m not sure the film stays entirely outside of that tone, but the moments where Christensen is alone are remarkable. The most memorable of which is him on his death bed, waiting for Michael to arrive so he can inform him that he’s leaving all his art to him. His gestures are intensified (this is still a silent film after all) but the heartache comes from underneath the image, so to speak, still because of the fabulous performance but it is not a feeling that feels forced from the image.




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