There’s an interesting plot lurking in this film. And, I’ve also been intrigued by director Carl Dreyer’s vision in the past. But here it feels like either a weird mismatch, or Dreyer’s style feels like a bit of a throwback.
In Dreyer’s defense, the film world changed around Dreyer dramatically in the nine years since his previous film Ordet, and he’d also been trying unsuccessfully to launch other films in the interim. When his attempts to adapt works by William Faulkner and Eugene O’Neill failed, Dreyer revisited an idea he’d had in the 1940s – adapting a play by Swedish writer Hjalmar Söderberg. Dreyer settled on Söderberg’s work Gertrud after reading a critic’s analysis pointing out how much of the play was driven by characters settling for trivial conversation instead of genuine communication. Struck by this observation, Dreyer chose to stage his adaptation in such a way that the dialogue was more important than the cinematography.
The problem is that it’s always been Dreyer’s imagery that’s struck me, so in a way he was abandoning his own best quality. The story itself also doesn’t really suit the all-talk approach; it’s a period piece and relationship drama, with Gertrud (Nina Pens Rode) struggling to balance her younger ideals about love with a disappointing reality. She’s currently married to Gustav (Bendt Rothe), a lawyer and aspiring politician, but previously had lived a more bohemian life as an opera singer and lover to esteemed poet Gabriel Lidman (Ebbe Rode). Her life with Gustav is calm, but stifling, and Gertrud shocks Gustav one day by asking for a divorce. Gabriel is in town for a visit, and Gustav assumes she wants to return to him – but actually she’s got her eye on a younger man, a pianist and composer named Erland (Baarde Owe). But that goes to pieces and Gabriel tries to lure her back – prompting Gertrud to finally tell him why she left him, and why she then was leaving Gustav, and why Erland also let her down so.
There’s some really heady stuff in this, and Gertrud is ultimately a tragic character – so caught up in an idealistic vision of What Love Really Is Like that nobody was ever going to satisfy her. Dreyer adds an epilogue to the original play that suggests Gertrud found her way to some happiness in a single life; I’m likely to end up that way myself, and I found that a refreshing change from the usual depiction of “tragically lonely older women”. But Dreyer is still pretty frank about how Gertrud’s monomaniacal commitment to those ideals of love is what leads her to this single life in the first place, and that’s also some food for thought.
The problem is that nearly all the scenes are conversations between pairs of people – Gertrud and Gustav, Gertrud and Erland, Gertrud and Gabriel, Gustav and Gabriel, etc. – with very little action. And nearly all of these conversations are strangely passionless, with neither person looking at each other – everyone seems to stare at some point in the middle distance as they speak, rarely reacting to each other. The most gumption we see from Gertrud is when she’s telling Gabriel about a moment from their old love affair, and we skip to a flashback when she discovers Gabriel’s written something that displeases her – but all she does is angrily rip a piece of paper in half and that’s it. Gustav has a similar moment at one point, Gertrud and Erland kiss a few times, and there’s a weird moment at a party in Gabriel’s honor when a college student delivers a lengthy tribute speech – but mostly it’s just people talking about how disappointed they are with their love lives, but in a tone of voice more suited to talking about how you had to settle for a different kind of cheese because your favorite was sold out.
So ultimately this felt like more of an intellectual exercise than a film.