Carl Theodor Dreyer
Review by Matt Bailey
Posted on 29 October 2004
Source Masters of Cinema/Eureka! DVD
Like Carl Th. Dreyer’s final film, Gertrud, his early silent, Michael , is a melodrama dressed up in arthouse finery. Michael is an impetuous, handsome young man who has lived under the very attentive care of his mentor, the renowned painter Claude Zoret. Michael is not only a painter himself, but the model for the figures in Zoret’s greatest masterpieces. As you might guess, Zoret’s got a little thing for Michael, but the love is largely unrequited. Michael probably succumbs to Zoret’s advances as much as is required to be kept by him, but Michael is something of a cad with the ladies, particularly the flighty and decadent Princess Lucia Zamikoff. As she poses for a vanity portrait to be painted by Zoret (for which she has no intention of paying), the princess turns on the charm for Michael. The typical scenario occurs (penniless painter pilfers from rich but clueless master to pay for extravagant love affair with debauched aristocrat), and the film ends just as one would imagine it would have to (with somebody dead and with hearts broken all around).
If the mechanics of the plot seem, well, mechanical, what sets the film apart from other silent melodramas of the time is the unspoken dialectic between love and art. Michael seems to be the soul of Zoret’s art. The greatest gift Zoret can think to give to his young protégé is the heroic-style nude portrait of Michael. Michael, on the other hand, only sees dollar signs with the gift, not the supreme gesture of love Zoret intended. It is unclear which act breaks Zoret’s heart more: his abandonment by Michael or Michael’s desire to sell the painting. Nearly every shot in the film is suffused with art of some sort: Zoret’s paintings, massive sculptures, or sumptuous interior design. However, the film is not just set against a backdrop of art. Art, in the film, is as valid a reason for living as love—perhaps a more valid reason. It is certainly more permanent and more rewarding. When Zoret claims at the end of the film that he has known true love, it can perhaps be understood that he is talking about art as well as human relationships.
Michael was released in various regions under various titles, including in the United States under the salacious title of Chained: The Story of the Third Sex. This title was indubitably meant to highlight the tragic relationship between Michael and his mentor, but has the effect of implying a sensational exposé of homosexuality that does not exist in the film. Despite this, the film does offer a portrait (blurry though it might be) of the pain of an unrequited, specifically homosexual love. It was a rare subject to be explored for the time, especially with the warmth and sensitivity the usually austere Dreyer devotes to it. The film does not stand out as one of Dreyer’s best or even as an exemplary film of any sort. It is absorbing, though, and the lavish new DVD release from Masters of Cinema through Eureka! is very welcome.