December 17, 1926 [Chained/Michael]

Despite his lukewarm reception to Chained, Mordaunt Hall, in the very last sentence of his New York Times review, does admit “The settings are quite impressive and the lighting at times is unusually good, especially in some of the close-ups.” And he is right--perhaps not in his less-than-enthusiastic review, but in his admiration of the director’s eye. Dreyer certainly makes a movie, but I suspect he would have preferred a series of photographs, for he is at his strongest when he places his characters in tableaux, barely moving, their eyes, their posture—and the perfect play of light and shadow behind them--conveying deeply any number of subtle moods, ideas, secrets and revelations. For Dreyer, the image is a plot in itself.

And so it makes sense that his plot deals with an artist: a master painter, Claude Zoret, who values art as “beautiful memories,” and who gazes adoringly at Michael, his model/“son,” the older man’s shining eyes and serious smile discomfiting and unmistakable in their passion. It becomes a film about the impossible heart of “courtly love,” yearning with more-than-Platonic avidity, at once safe in the knowledge that the love can never be consummated, and scarred by the sadly noble decision that the only alternative is the melancholy pleasure of dying in peace and in love.
But there is a certain rage. As the “Master” exclaims, “No man knows how lonely I am! And no man has a right to make me still more lonely.” But in his tableaux and close-ups, Dreyer assumes that right, and isolates Zoret--and Michael, who drifts into the arms of a Countess and lies languorously in her bed as Zoret dies, the young man posed in an Oriental dressing-gown like a golden doll. He has sought independence, but simply becomes another's model, beautiful and unattainable. And it is Dreyer’s camera that, in its insistence on perfection, approaches its subjects and effects a striking irony: The closer we are to them, the weaker they become, dying in one bed, drowsing in another. I at once felt a great loss and knew a cold truth--about art-as-memory and love-as-image--and the desperation that leads one to live in a story, ironically to remain safe from prying eyes--except Dreyer will pry, and pry, until the lid pops, like a can of film in the projectionist’s hands.


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