Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Ray Carney

Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer by Raymond Carney provides an intelligent, thoughtful, and accessible analysis of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s body of work. In order to illustrate the recurring themes and distinctive visual aesthetic that pervade Dreyer’s films, Carney examines The Passion of Joan of Arc, Day of Wrath, Ordet, and Gertrud.

In Day of Wrath, Carney introduces the idea of Dreyer’s archetypal heroines as struggling to transcend the repression, suffering, and personal limitations of their social position by existing in an imaginative realm. Anne’s characterization (as realized by actress Lisbeth Movin) as a luminous, vibrant, and curious physical spirit further reinforces her ability to find an emotionally substantive, yet ethereal sanctuary. By defining Anne’s enigmatic behavior as a manifestation of her desire to exist outside the confines of her corporeal existence to inhabit a world of dreams, Carney also reconciles Dreyer’s seemingly aberrant film on mysticism and the supernatural, Vampyr.

Carney describes Ordet as an assimilative experience that correlates Dreyer’s deliberate and minimal camera movements with the restrained interaction and fractured relationships among the characters and, more significantly, Inger’s unifying role as mediator, pragmatist, and reconciliator.

On the disparity between Kaj Munk’s theatrical portrayal of Johannes as a strange, but enlightened prophet and Dreyer’s characterization of Johannes’ state as a disconnected spirituality in Ordet, Carney explains:

In short, Johannes summarizes an empowering ambivalence about the relation of abstract ideals and practical expressions that is present in all Dreyer’s important work. One can say without irony that Ordet is the product of Dreyer’s willingness to admit his confusion, rather than resolve it too easily. Kaj Munk was not confused about his Johannes, and the greatness of Dreyer’s film is a result of his willingness to be uncertain about the relation of souls and bodies, of spiritual and practical matters, of ideals and worldly expressions, in a way Munk was not.

Carney further clarifies the misconception of Dreyer as a purely spiritual filmmaker, arguing that Dreyer’s perspective is reflected through the pragmatic spirituality and conciliatory nature of Inger, rather than the rigid, but emotionally and intellectually inaccessible faith of Johannes. By presenting the film from the perspective of Inger (and later, through Inger’s daughter, Maren), Dreyer illustrates the need for personal balance and reconciliation between generations, sexes, religion, and ultimately, life and death.

Addressing the general criticism of Gertrud as slow and talkative, Carney proposes that Gertrud’s static and distended tone mirrors the themes earlier presented through Anne’s retreat into imaginative coexistence in Day of Wrath (and Allan Gray similarly experiences in Vampyr). Carney proposes that Dreyer stylistically manifests Gertrud’s ideological defiance of her repressive environment and unrequited emotion through the inherent minimalism and visual economy of the mise-en-scène. In distilling the physical distraction of setting, Dreyer figuratively focuses attention on the ephemeral – specifically, Gertrud’s uncompromising and intangible possession – her unattainable, imaginative ideal. Similar to the singular focus, impracticability, and inaccessibility of Johannes and Peter in Ordet and Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc, Gertrud also exhibits an unrealistic resoluteness that leads to profound alienation and tragedy.

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