18 March 2009 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Danish blue-blood mellerdrammer
This film by Carl Dreyer is titled 'The President' in the old-fashioned European sense of the word 'president': the title character is the presiding official of a European town; not quite the mayor, nor quite the chief magistrate. Like its title, this entire film is very much a product of the fading days of imperial Europe. The film's premise takes it for granted that aristocratic noblemen are somehow innately different from the common folk, with a different set of priorities, a different set of duties, and a different form of justice.
The film is set in 19th-century Denmark. The main plot is some hoo-ha about a greying blue-blood (Halvard Hoff) who must preside over the trial and sentence of a young governess (Olga Raphael-Linden) accused of murdering the child in her charge. The governess pleads guilty, but for some reason she's going to be put on trial anyway. (I know nothing about 19th-century Danish law; would a defendant who pleads guilty to a capital offence be made to stand trial?) The president abruptly learns that the governess is his own daughter, born of a tryst with a working-class woman whom he didn't marry due to their social disparity. Naturally, because this total stranger is his own daughter he must now intercede. What follows is mostly deepest bathos.
The action of this sprawling movie takes place over three generations. Two of the actors in this film (Hoff and Elith Pio) each play their characters at two radically different ages; unfortunately, the old-age makeup on these two young actors is very unconvincing. Also unconvincing is the hairpiece worn by Richard Christensen (the best actor in this film) as the governess's defence advocate. I was distressed that Christensen bears a striking resemblance to Michael Palin. Talking of makeup: the governess wears lip rouge in her death cell.
Whoever handled the set dressing on this movie should have cut down on the caffeine: one character's home is decorated with dozens of silhouette portraits, while another character's home is festooned with miniatures arranged in geometric patterns. The keys for the cells in the local prison are hung on a wall-rack shaped like a bat; it looks like it would have been more appropriate in Dreyer's film 'Vampyr'. One shot in this movie, depicting a servant seen only in shadow, reminded me of a famous shot in 'Vampyr'.
In all the long length of 'The President', Dreyer's camera hardly ever moves and always does so clumsily. Fortunately, Dreyer's static camera gives us some strikingly beautiful compositions. All of his exteriors are exquisitely framed and lighted. (I wonder if he used reflectors.) A few brief sequences are rather obviously shot day-for-night. I was impressed by one shot when lovers meet on a bridge; we see their reflections in the water rather than the lovers themselves.
There are a few weird lapses here. One character wears spectacles in medium-long shot, then Dreyer cuts to him in close-up and the spectacles are gone. The president's cook carries live terriers in a closed satchel with no airholes, to no ill effect. The cook is played by Fanny Petersen, who strongly resembles Beryl Mercer, one of the most annoying actresses in film history.
'The President' has many flaws, most notably a turgid and overly complicated storyline. However, Dreyer's directorial skill is manifest here, and most of his actors give good performances. I'll rate this deeply old-fashioned movie 6 out of 10.