#4 in my ranking of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s filmography.
Now regarded as a landmark of gay cinema, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s adaptation of Herman Bang’s novel, tells the story of a powerful male artist who must let his young male lover and model, the titular Michael, go when the young man finds someone he actually loves. It’s about a manipulative old man dying effectively alone after failing to manipulate his young lover into staying with him. Michael is the work of an artist who has come out of the crucible of his first five feature films as a strong voice in the medium, in full command of the tools of cinema at the time. This is a confident, forceful work by a young Danish filmmaker who was emerging as one of the most important voices of the late silent era.
The master Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) is a painter of great renown, having made a career based on his model, the young and handsome Michael (Walter Slezak). Before Michael, the master was a minor success, but with Michael, the master became a sensation. His house is centered around a magnificent and huge set, ornate with thirty foot high ceilings, art hanging from every wall, and a large stone head missing a nose as the centerpiece when someone enters the room. Dreyer allows the audience to drink in the details of the room early and often since most of the film takes place here, but it never feels confined. Aside from the fact that we do go outside the room for stretches, there’s simply so much detail to take in and see, and so many different ways to film the room that he takes advantage of. I’m reminded of the abandoned church in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem that, I felt, was a similarly interesting space that was filmed far less interestingly.
The story turns on the introduction of an impoverished Russian countess, Lucia Zamikow (Nora Gregor), who seeks Zoret’s talent to paint her portrait, perhaps in an effort to increase her clout and allow her entrances into society that she’s currently denied, her only potential source of income as a former Russian royal in Germany after the Red Revolution back home. After a dinner scene that introduces all of the secondary characters of the film (a critic, a young Duke, a rich older man, and his younger wife), Zoret decides to paint the countess as a challenge. The challenge becomes too much for him, finding himself unable to actually realize her image convincingly. Frustrated, he tasks Michael, who had originally come to Zoret hoping to be taken on as an art student, who quickly (in a small bravura sequence that presages the more extravagant camera moves Dreyer would use in The Passion of Joan of Arc) and convincingly paints her eyes.
So begins the love affair between Zamikow and Michael, which will ultimately break apart the relationship between Michael and Zoret. This is mirrored in a small subplot between the Duke and the young wife of the rich man. Perhaps this was placed in to help highlight the implied sexual aspect of the relationship between Michael and Zoret. There is a shot where the rich man comes to visit Zoret while both Michael and the man’s wife are off with their lovers and each asks after the other that makes the implication as clear as day. The two stories go in very different directions, though. The rich man can’t take his cuckoldry and shoots the young Duke in a duel, but Zoret doesn’t have that option. He can’t challenge Zamikow, the impoverished Russian countess, to pistols at dawn. All he can do is watch Michael peel away.
Michael is no saint in this story, though. He racks up huge debts courting the countess, debts that Zoret quietly pays. Michael takes the seminal work that Zoret painted of him, “Victory”, and sells it, which Zoret immediately buys back at any price. One might say that since Zoret’s wild success is due to Michael’s presence as his muse that Michael is due a not insignificant portion of Zoret’s financial rewards, a thought that most likely goes through Zoret’s mind as he pays for Michael’s whims. I can’t help but feel that Zoret also knows that his treatment of Michael, as ornate as the lodgings that he provides to his young model in his own home may be, are somewhat akin to a prison. He never fights back to keep Michael, having taken in a young, impressionable man and molded him into what he wanted, like a piece of art. And yet, Michael breaks out.
How much is from Michael, and how much is from the countess possibly manipulating this young man herself? That’s never really addressed explicitly, but the potential mirror of Michael going from one manipulator to another is too rich to not be in the subtext. Michael’s late actions make it hard to ignore, but the film is largely from Zoret’s point of view.
Through all of this is the critic, Charles Switt (Robert Garrison). Most likely the master’s lover before Michael whom Zoret cast aside in favor of the young man, Switt writes about Zoret and ends up being the only man other than his servants at Zoret’s side on his deathbed. Having made his final masterpiece, a large painting of an old man dying by the sea, “a man who has lost everything” one observer notes, Zoret sees that he’s lost the only thing that matters to him when Michael does not show up at the unveiling. It gets worse when Michael steals the sketches Zoret had made in Algeria that became the basis for the background of the painting, sketches that would have fetched tens of thousands of dollars.
There’s a quiet and subtle sadness that permeates the film, especially in its final moments. The contextualization of Michael and Zoret’s relationship against the rich man and his wife is intelligently integrated into the story, providing a contrast that illuminates the central tale. The acting, which in the body of Dreyer’s work had been moving towards more consciously naturalistic, embraces the subtle nature of facial expression to tell a story rather than grand, sweeping body motions. The tale is told through faces, most notably through Christensen’s (who was a noted director himself, having made Haxan: Witchcraft through the Ages a few years before) who is saddled with most of the emotional work as he watches his personal life fall apart around him, unable to do anything about it.
I find that people are too quick to label older dramas as melodramas, and I’ve seen that with Michael. In my mind, a melodrama is about huge emotions played large, but that doesn’t fit this film at all. These are large emotions played small. And this is Dreyer bringing a complex emotional story to screen with extreme alacrity and skill. This is his best film up to this point, and his first great one.