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Brooding depression sets in when a famous artist's ward, and principal model, leaves him for a beautiful and much younger Russian princess. A young and not-yet-corpulent Walter Slezak plays the young model, and the title character, in Carl Theodor Dreyer's MICHAEL. Slezak, who's most famous as the duplicitous German sailor washed aboard Alfred Hitchcock's `Lifeboat,' is about the only recognizable actor in this 1924, German-produced, silent movie.
Although Slezak is the featured star, the leading character is Benjamin Christensen's Claude Zoret, the great artist, usually referred to by the others simply as The Master. The story begins, and spends most of its time in, the Master's mansion - one of those big, drafty, rococo/Victorian art mausoleums that looks like a toney funeral home and, to that extent, more or less fits the movie. Young Michael is feckless and self-centered, good-looking enough to step comfortably in and out of an Arrow shirt ad, and its his image that graces the Master's greatest painting, `The Victor.' Disruption arrives in the form of Princess Lucia Zamikoff (Nora Gergor,) who persuades the initially reluctant Master to paint her portrait. Before the paint is dry Michael is in love with her, and ready to leave the Master.
`Mikaël' was written by Danish Impressionist novelist Herman Bang (1857-1912.) (...). Danish film historian Casper Tyberg tell us, in his interesting and fact-filled commentary, that MICHAEL has a disputed place in the history of gay cinema. The movie's central relationship, between the Master and Michael, is at best ambiguous. There are, as Tyberg says, hints and `cues' of something more, but on screen there's only evidence of the Master's paternal affection, rather than passionate physical attraction. If, as Tyberg tells us, the theme was buried in the book, it is so in the film as well.
Beyond the `cue' hunting MICHAEL is interesting if viewed as a giant step toward Dreyer's towering masterpiece of 1928, `The Passion of Joan of Arc.' Tyborg tells us MICHAEL was a `lost' film until a print was discovered in 1952. It wasn't released to many foreign markets during its original run. Even France wouldn't take it. A studio exec, if I remember Tyborg's comment correctly, said it was too boring even for the art houses. Probably so. Dreyer's movies tend to be character driven. This is the fourth one of his I've seen and I'm getting used to his heavy reliance on facial expressions and significant glances. However, unless the subject fits the method - as it does brilliantly in his `The Passion...' it gets to be pretty heavy going. Perhaps most difficult is the choice of an older, somewhat autocratic character as the one we're supposed to feel the most for. Christensen is perfectly fine as the Master, but Mary Pickford or Lillian Gish he ain't. It's hard enough to warm up to him, much less ache for the betrayal he suffers. So, a weak four stars for the watchably restored MICHAEL, a reserved classic that perhaps offers more to the historically curious than those who want to get emotionally caught up in a movie.