Erotikon (1920)

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  • directed by Mauritz Stiller
  • starring Anders de Wahl, Tora Teje, Karin Molander, Lars Hanson, Elin Lagergren, Vilhelm Bryde
  • An entomology professor has an easygoing wife who is courted by two suitors.

I don’t really know where to begin with Erotikon partly because it’s been hard to wrap my head around what was going on or why it was going on in the way that it was. One point of confusion was that for a story mainly about love and relationships, there was a glaring absence of any warmth or emotion in the film.

Though I can’t quite say he produced an enjoyable film for me, Stiller did do great work in matching the coldness and cynicism of the story with very clean and emotionally detached photography. There was the occasional flash of something ecstatic or suggestive to round out the perspective on modern love, but Stiller’s staging, especially in the first quarter of the film when we meet the characters and see Professor Charpentier lecturing on the mating patterns of insects, plays much more like an educational work than it does a “romantic comedy” film.

Moving forward to consider the film’s first half on the whole, the plot—the Professor’s wife being desired by two men and him developing an unhealthy liking for his niece–astonishingly moves forward with our main characters contributing nothing to it at all. The lecture on polygamist bugs and a ballet given much emphasis at the film’s halfway mark are basically the only reasons I was aware of the dynamics of the story. Preben and Irene don’t have a scene of expressed or suppressed desire, but the ballet in which a man interrupts a marriage with his scandalous yearnings tells us everything we need to know about the nature of Erotikon’s main characters.

The characters work, shop, run errands, deal with their dress, and there’s much time given to leisure activities. The thing they don’t do is communicate to the audience or each other what they are unhappy with or want in regards to romantic pursuits. Again, for a “romantic comedy” I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film’s plot—through supplemental elements, foreshadowing, and metaphors–unfold in such a roundabout way before.

After a very slow first half, the tone shifts and the film does start clicking at some point soon after the ballet with a confrontation between the married couple and the male mistress who attempts to come between them. Stiller’s compositions mostly remained distant and minimal, but for once the characters break out and are willing to act on their impulses and begin to acknowledge and take stock of the messes surrounding them.

The other problem I had with Erotikon and probably my biggest point of disconnection was the musical accompaniment to the film. In the rare scenes where the film was working it unfortunately carried on its back a flatlining score that had nothing to do with the mood and brought the energy to a screeching halt. As I make my way through the silent era I’ve been surprised to find that’s exactly how I prefer to watch some of these films—on mute.

Come to think of it the score was one of a big bunch of contradictions right down to the film’s title, which suggests that the proportions of the sensual and the banal were going to be the opposite of what they were. The Charpentiers were complete opposites, the music and subject matter worked against each other mightily, the story pitted science and hormones versus tradition and rational emotion, and Stiller’s very structured images were at the same time, but not often enough, at least nodding towards sultry. All put together this made for intentions and themes that were difficult to fully grasp on one viewing.

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About classixquest
all the things I should have seen

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