The two final works of Danish titan Carl Theodor Dreyer economically cover the two poles of his attitudes toward love: Ordet is a sober celebration on the ability of love to accomplish the impossible and Gertrud is a hysterical lament for a woman who insists on fixating on the impossibility of love. Dreyer’s early silent film Michael (based on a turn-of-the-century novel by the controversial gay Danish author Herman Bang) concerns itself with the gloomy latter proposition, and it resonates strongly as not only one of Dreyer’s greatest early accomplishments (not long after the comedy The Parson’s Widow, which utilizes both elements of the love continuum) but also as one of the most daring early expressions of gay-themed melodrama. Benjamin Christensen is the drama queen at the heart of the story, playing the middle-aged artist Zoret. Success (artistic if not popular, judging from his beyond-opulent digs courtesy of production designer Hugo Haring) appears to have eluded Zoret for the entirety of his career until the moment that Michael (Walter Slezak, who looks distractingly like Eraserhead’s Jack Nance) entered and rocked the homosexual artist’s world with his dapper looks, vivacious temper, and tantalizing unavailability. (“Gay for pay” is about as much as Dreyer was undoubtedly allowed to suggest, and even then only indirectly.)
With Michael serving as his model, Zoret’s muse gets stiff and unleashes a spate of painterly accomplishments that turn him into the toast of the town. Unfortunately, and in keeping with Dreyer’s unforgiving, nasty sense of fatalistic humor, his increased critical stock attracts the attention of Princess Zamikoff (Nora Gregor of Rules of the Game fame), who commissions Zoret to paint her. He is unable to correctly draw her eyes (i.e. her soul) and hands over the brush to Michael to see if his protégée has actually learned technique from the master. A few swift brush strokes and the painting is completed. But, in a situation which mirrors Zoret and Michael’s creative relationship, the Princess appears to have Michael eating out of her hand, as well as out of Zoret’s pocketbook. Zoret responds by painting a devastating self-portrait of himself, totally wasted away and propping himself up against a violent twilight sky in the background of the painting as Michael and Zamikoff lock eyes in the foreground on either side of his near-corpse.
Many critics have chosen to downplay the film’s gay subtext, but to do so would deny the power of Dreyer’s fastidious attention to the polarity of love’s vicissitudes mentioned earlier. If stripped of the notion that the artist’s attraction toward Michael (whose alleged bisexuality is clearly of a solely opportunistic strain) is physical as well as social, the film essentially becomes an embittered (and fairly rote, despite the astonishingly suffocating mise-en-scène) tale of two cuckolds. Regarding the second, it actually feels like Dreyer was attempting to throw more reactionary viewers off the gay overtones of the mainstage drama with an otherwise unrelated subplot depicting the married Alice Adelsskjold’s affair with the Duke of Monthieu. In both cases, however, suffering becomes the catalyst for surprisingly secular religious epiphanies. If the bumper stick adage is to be believed, God answers knee mail. But, if Dreyer’s deliciously masochistic eroticism is to be believed, the dominatrix deity might prefer it delivered with a blowjob.