When We Are Married
Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 24 July 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Reviews: Sir Arne’s Treasure
Reviews: The Saga of Gösta Berling
Peter Cowie calls Erotikon “frothy” and makes the inevitable comparisons with Lubitsch, although in truth this may raise expectations that Stiller’s film doesn’t quite meet. Mention “Lubitsch” and we think of the Trouble In Paradise paradigm, witty, gossamer-light, with a never quite blatant but always present sexual innuendo (but where the social institutions that the American bourgeoisie hold dear, above all marriage, are never seriously challenged). Erotikon is a nicely-done silent drawing-room comedy, but it does move a tad slowly for modern tastes, with, frankly, the laughs being few and far between. Its modern appeal lies in its resolute refusal to take the institution of marriage as anything sacred; the ties that bind are quickly abandoned by the end of the film, almost without a second thought. But Cowie is right to emphasise that Stiller’s film has nothing of the melancholy of his beloved Bergman’s comedies (e.g. Smiles of a Summer’s Night), although you might think so judging by the dirge-like score that is on Kino’s DVD. I’m usually very tolerant of the scores that come with silent movies — basically, silent film was never meant to be viewed silently — but here is one case where you need to turn off the soundtrack. Otherwise you’ll forget that this is a comedy.
The sexual/romantic situation is one of a marriage gone stale, if it wasn’t stillborn in the first place. The mismatched married couple are Professor Leo Charpentier and his wife Irene. He’s older than her, but hardly a doddery absent-minded professor (that role is taken by his colleague Professor Sidonius, with his contorted-body antics the film’s one true comic creation). Instead, he’s a staid, comfortable, middle-aged bourgeois, completely out of tune with his wife’s energy, vivacity, and modern sexiness. He also has a more than close relationship with his slightly plump, homey live-in niece Marte, who is clearly enamoured with him—she studies cookbooks for his favourite recipe of mutton casserole and helps him on with his tie, both tasks that Irene declines to do. Instead, Irene makes do with her considerable sex appeal—see how she quickly makes Leo forget the help Marte gave him with his tie by calling him over to attend to her flimsy, revealing dress.
In addition to her husband Irene has two men dancing in attendance on her. The first is sculptor Preben Wells, Leo’s closest friend, who is clearly in love with her, a love which it seems — judging by the love tune she plays for him in the presence of her husband — she returns. The second is the aristocratic playboy Baron Felix, who in one early scene takes her flying in his private airplane. The appearance is that she is carrying on an affair with the baron, although in the end this seems not to be the case.
In an early scene of the film the professor himself presents to the audience the romantic triangulations that the film will explore. He gives a lecture on his entomological specialty, the tree beetle, and its mating variations that run the range of one mate, two mates, and, in the case of one particular beetle, even three mates. The one surprise is that in the film’s story the sexes will be reversed: Irene is the special polygamous type, with three men in train: Leo, Preben, and the Baron.
A further parallel to their romantic situation is provided by a lavish and risqué ballet all four attend. (Peter Cowie tells us that Erotikon was one of the most expensive Swedish films produced to date, and you can believe it watching this theatre scene, with the huge cast and elaborate set of this Salome-like ballet, and with a theatre filled to the brim with extras.) In the ballet, the Shah’s wife — who also indulges in a dance performance in an even more revealing state of semi-undress than Irene — loves his best friend, attempts to seduce him, and has him jailed when he rebuffs her; the Shah on his return has his loyal friend killed.
The parallels between the characters of the ballet and the three in the theatre box watching the ballet are clear, although not to the professor who merely comments that he prefers the comedy demanded of the motion picture to this tragedy. This idea will be picked up by Irene in the last section of the film: after Preben confronts her with his suspicions that she has a liaison with the baron and then rather violently rejects her laughing declaration of her love for him, she promises that she will offer tragedy rather than comedy—telling Leo she has deceived him, deciding on divorce, and leaving for mother’s.
Erotikon’s major theme is that of appearance; mistaken assumptions are made from misinterpreting those surface appearances. Characters put on a mask, adopt a fa√ßade in keeping with the way they want to project their social identity. Preben plays the loyal friend, barely keeping his passion for Irene in check. It’s only raging jealousy of the baron that makes him break from this role, whether leaving from the theatre in a huff or revealing to Leo his wife’s “unfaithfulness” (his misinterpretation of the sight of a woman concealed by a parasol accompanying the baron whom he mistakes for Irene).
Leo’s persona of the staid professor is revealed on Irene’s departure to conceal another, infantilised identity. He gleefully slides down the staircase banisters with one of the boxes of Irene’s packed belongings, and, when he discovers Marte playing with one of Irene’s coats, takes her off for a slide down the banisters, too. (Did Swedes of the day really find nothing amiss with a middle-aged man ending up in sexual/romantic union with his niece?)
Marte also reveals there’s a lot more to her homey, slightly dumpy, demure persona. When everyone else takes off for the theatre, she sets aside her cook book, hitches up her dress, stretches out on the sofa, and luxuriously, lingeringly smokes a forbidden cigarette.
But it is playful, mocking, vivacious Irene who adopts and discards one role after another in the course of the film. When we first meet her, she’s putting on a pretense, checking off in her notebook as she teaches her furrier a “lesson in patience”, which involves her playing out a mini-drama of being interested in buying something from him and then declining to buy anything. That the next item in her notebook is her plane outing with Baron Felix, should alert us that her affair with him is as much a pretense.
Of all Erotikon’s characters Irene is the one who most switches roles and personae, often within the one scene. Watch how she laughs behind the door at the professor and Marte’s antics, and then puts on a solemn face to announce her departure. It’s an indicator too of her energy and vitality, and the source of a lot of the film’s rather muted comedy; it’s as if this constant movement and role-switching is a sign of her desire to escape her married home, encumbered as it is in Stiller’s lavish sets with so many confining and restricting furnishings, ornaments and bric-à-brac.
All of this comes most to the fore in the film’s final sequence. Preben has realised his mistake about Irene and now promises Leo that he will rush to Irene at her mother’s home to win her back for his best friend. Meanwhile, Irene is lying down with a headache, a sign of her emotional exhaustion which soon proves to be nothing more than a “sign.” In quick succession, on learning of Preben’s arrival she rushes frantically between rooms; collapses weeping at her mother’s side; puts on her a flirtatious, fun-loving façade to greet Preben; solemnly, in a melodramatic gesture, stretches out her hand to comfort the upset Preben as he huddles on a sofa; then grabs his hair and violently pulls him around.
That last action was probably her most genuine one in the whole film, as she too had misinterpreted a scene at her furrier’s, thinking, wrongly, that what she witnessed revealed that Preben’s model was also his mistress. That misunderstanding out of the way, the film can now move to a comedy’s requisite happy end. With a certain pleasing amorality, the ties of marriage and of friendship are completely forgotten as the two new couples pair off, Irene and Preben in a close clinch at one end of the telephone line, Leo and Marte at the end—even if a consummating kiss is denied Leo through his recent consumption of his beloved mutton casserole. For all the promise of illicit sex that is offered throughout Erotikon, in the end it is all rather chaste allusion, forever delayed. It only seems appropriate that the stink of Leo’s dinner puts off even a little kiss, too.