Director: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Cast: Walter Slezak, Max Auzinger, Nora Gregor
Synopsis: Triangle story: painter, his young male model, unscrupulous princess.
Carl Theodor Dreyer was yet to hit his creative stride when he co-wrote (with Fritz Lang’s wife Thea von Harbou) and directed Michael, a starchy drama remarkable only because it is centred around a homosexual relationship between an artist and his muse.
Benjamin Christensen (who, like Dreyer, was in the process of establishing himself as a director) plays Claude Zoret, a famed artist living in opulent splendour with Michael (Walter Slezak — The Pirate), a young aspiring artist who came to Zoret four years before with a sample of his paintings. While the older man was dismissive of any artistic talent Michael may have possessed, he was more than impressed with his physique and offered him the opportunity to pose for him. The paintings Zoret created using Michael as a model proved to be his most popular, and he moved the boy into his home, promising him that when he (Zoret) died he would leave everything to Michael.
However, there’s always a sense that the relationship that has developed between them means more to Zoret than Michael — and, in fact, seems to bring little pleasure to either of them when we join them. Zoret seems constantly anxious of the possibility of losing Michael, and therefore panders to his every whim, while Michael feels smothered by Zoret’s attentions. These tensions are brought to a head when the impoverished Princess Lucia Zamikoff (Nora Gregor — La regle du jeu) commissions Zoret to paint her portrait, a task the artist finds impossible to complete because he’s unable to capture her eyes on canvas. In desperation, he invites Michael to have a go, which the younger man achieves with just a few strokes. But gazing into the Princess’s eyes triggers something within Michael, and it isn’t long before they have embarked on an intense romance.
Michael is a visually sumptuous movie, thanks to the meticulous attention to detail of set designer Hugo Haring and the superlative cinematography of both Karl Freund (who also has a cameo role as an art dealer) and Rudolph Mate. The story relies on nuanced performances, in particular from Christensen who is called upon to convey the deep anxieties and fears that Michael’s perfidy stirs within him without resorting to overt demonstrations of emotion. Slezak, whose second film this was, is unable to match the subtlety of Christensen’s performance, but occupies much less screen time and thus proves less of a liability than he might otherwise have done.
Perhaps unsurprisingly given its homoerotic subtext, Michael had something of a chequered reception upon its release. It was banned in France, and was not released in the United States until 1927, when it was given the sensationalistic new title Chained: The Story of the Third Sex. It’s certainly not one of Dreyer’s major works, and almost fatally lacks emotional resonance, but it does possess enough examples of Dreyer’s trademark touches to make it worth catching.
(Reviewed 27th January 2014)