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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Carl Dreyer at the BFI

I've been going to a lot of films in the British Film Institute's Carl Dreyer season, and what better place to resurrect a dead-looking blog than with the director of classic I-vaunt-to-suck-your-blood drama, Vampyr?

Dreyer was an extraordinary Danish director, an innovator who is now best known for somewhat sparse and serious films like The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath and Ordet.  I first came across him through his last film, Gertrud, which may be his best.

What I didn't know until recently was that he also directed truly fabulous early silent comedies. Last week I saw his third film, The Parson's Widow (1920), and it was so funny and so moving that I can't stop thinking about it.  It's about a young man who becomes parson of a small village, but only on condition that he marry Dame Margaret, a gaunt crone, the widow of the previous parson. With trepidaton, he agrees, and moves his sweetheart into the household too, pretending that she is his sister.  What ensues is a set of farcical mishaps as he and his girlfriend try to set up secret trysts, which of course go wrong.  They even try to scare the widow to death to get her out of the way.  By the end, they repent of their callous ways.  And this is where the film changes tone entirely, as we see things from the old lady's point of view and realise that she too once played a very different role in life.

It's beautifully filmed, deeply humane, and very well acted.  Apparently Hildur Carlberg, who played the widow, was herself terminally ill at the time of filming, but promised Dreyer that she would not die until the job was done.  She kept her promise, and died just a few weeks later, before she could see the final film.

Her performance is so good that I am sad not to be able to see her at other points of her career.  There is something eerie about the thought of her much younger self, lost to the camera because films hadn't been invented yet.

The Dreyer season continues .. and I will be going to several more.

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