1960s, 3/4, Carl Th. Dreyer, Drama, Review


Gertrud (1964) - IMDb

#9 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.

If anyone tried to say that Carl Theodor Dreyer’s final film wasn’t heavily inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s 50s and early 60s output, I would call that person a dirty liar. This movie is infused with a Bergmanesque sensibility and would have felt right at home in Bergman’s body of work in the late 50s. I don’t know if it was intentional homage, if Dreyer just absorbed so much of Bergman’s work in the decade after he finished Ordet that it seeped into his basic approach to filmmaking, or if it was something else entirely, but there’s no denying the influence.

This is a film about dreams. Unlike Vampyr, it is not a dream in and of itself. It is very much in some kind of tangible reality where people, particularly the titular character Gertrud, are recalling literal dreams as well as dreams of the past and trying to reconcile those with the quieter and, yes, austere reality they find themselves in. It feels like the characters are all on a quest for some kind of perfect manifestation of love, destined to come up short and disappointed in the results.

Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode), a former opera singer, is the wife of a successful lawyer potentially being called up to be a cabinet minister in the Danish government, Gustav (Bendt Rothe). Their marriage is a very stale one where they have separate bedrooms in their large apartment in Copenhagen. Recently, they have grown even further apart with Gertrud locking her bedroom door to her husband over the past month, all while entering the earliest stages of an affair with the young pianist Erland Jansson (Baard Owe). Coming to town to be heralded is the poet, and Gertrud’s former lover, Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode). So we have Gertrud’s past, present, and future manifestations of love coming together in one place and time.

It must be noted how Dreyer films the movie. There are less than 90 shots total in the entire film. Dreyer used long takes extensively, must like he had in Ordet, and the way he frames the actors in the spare spaces often feels unnatural. That’s entirely by design. This uncomfortable positioning of two bodies in a space, often not even looking at each other as they speak, is all about the inability of these people to actually connect, to ever find the commonality between them that they so desperately seek. Within this context there are shot types that Bergman used rather extensively such as one character in the foreground looking off to the side while another in the background looks at the other.

The film is about the three men that swirl around Gertrud’s life (and a fourth who takes a prominent place in the film’s coda), and yet the film is mostly made up of scenes between different pairs, much like Bergman’s much later film Saraband. The film starts with Gertrud uncomfortably receiving the news of Gustav’s potential appointment and, after a brief visit from his mother, becomes about Gertrud admitting her affair and telling him that she’s leaving him, having found herself feeling homeless in her own home and without love. Next she goes to meet Erland, and I think the movie’s greatest failing is here.

Erland is obviously a kind of lowlife the minute we see him. At no point is it possible to look at this young man in his introductory scene and not think he’s doing anything but using Gertrud for a bit of fun with no notion of continuing any sort of serious relationship with her. I never considered her future plans with Erland to be anything other than complete fancy, and I think that undermines her journey a bit. I think this needed to be believable. I think we needed to be sold on the idea that Erland meant his protestations of love, but he barely gets any out at all. We need to buy into Gertrud’s ideas of a future passionate love with a man in her own field (music) who can understand her, but his obvious dismissal of her concerns about him going out to have an endless string of drunken nights doing whatever he wants keeps the audience from seeing what Gertrud sees. I really feel like Erland needed to sell to Gertrud, and to us, that he was going to be the man she dreamt him to be. Exciting, young, passionate, and faithful. His introduction, though, comes off as flippant and dismissive. This, I think, undermines the later emotional punches.

Gertrud goes to the large dinner that celebrates the national poetic hero, Gabriel Lidman. Honored by a military procession of youth who quote his poetry back to him, poetry about how love is ultimately meaningless since two souls will only ever be alone, and we can begin to see how a relationship with him would fall apart. He still longs for Gertrud, though, and yet he cannot feel good about informing her about the lewd behavior her young lover, Erland, had gone through just the night before at a party they were coincidentally at together. I really feel like if Erland had been sold as a good man in his introduction, this reveal would have had greater impact, but it just ends up feeling like a revelation of something we already know. Though, considering that Gertrud kind of acts like she already knew as well, maybe that’s the point.

Everything’s fallen apart. She’s already informed Gustav that she’s leaving him. Gustav knows about the affair and vacillates between kicking her out and pleading with her to stay forever (or until she starts loving him again) and back. Erland does not love Gertrud, and even if he did he’s already having a child with another woman. She could fall back to Lidman, but their initial break, where she discovered that she could only be second to his work, lingers in the back of her mind and so she cannot go with him to Rome. Instead, she chooses to go with her male friend, Axel (Axel Strobye) to Paris to re-enter the world of music.

The world of reality cannot live up to the promise of dreams, and Gertrud chooses to live her life free of the dreams of love. In an epilogue we see Gertrude, a spinster and dressed rather mannishly, greet Axel after decades apart, and they spend a few minutes reminiscing about how they never turned to love. This scene feels sad and kind of empty for Gertrude. She has everything she wanted professionally, but all she has personally is a manservant she orders to clean the kitchen floor. Was her inability to live up to her own dreams of love worth casting them aside completely? She doesn’t seem that happy with the decision.

This takes me to another Bergman influence. There are two flashbacks and the coda decades ahead that functions as a flashforward, and all three are bathed in white. White walls and clothes and bright lights that make everything whiter, this was a very similar visual approach Bergman took to the flashbacks in Wild Strawberries. It creates an aesthetic that implies happiness even though the actual memories are all three tinged with disappointment and pain while also easily separating it out from the main narrative.

Overall, I found Gertrud an interesting, thoughtful film that never quite engaged me emotionally the way I felt like it was trying to and Dreyer had done before. There’s obviously a lot to chew on intellectually. It’s a formally impressive film with very precise and almost mannered performances, nearly all done in very long takes that allow actors time to breathe. I just wish I could have been with Gertrud more on her journey.

Rating: 3/4


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