Friday, December 26, 2008

Far from Heaven

DAY OF WRATH / Vrdens Dag
(Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1943, Denmark, 110 mins.)

"You asked if I ever wished you were dead.
I have wished it hundreds of times."
-- Anne to Absalon

***** ***** *****

Day of Wrath has all the ingredients for a juicy melodrama. A beautiful young woman with a shady past marries an older pillar of the community. His judgmental mother, who preferred her deceased predecessor, neither likes nor trusts her. The young woman's stepson, however, who happens to be around the same age, not only likes and trusts the beautiful young woman...he loves her. And she him.

Best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer (1889-1968) could've set Hans Wiers-Jenssens' novel in the 1930s, and crafted a little Sirk-style weepie. Instead, he sticks with the original stiff-collared 1620s, a period that anticipates Nazi-occupied Denmark, just as Arthur Miller's The Crucible reflects the McCarthy era.

Further, John Patrick Shanley's Doubt mirrors the state of the Catholic Church after Vatican II as much as it does the Bush Administration which, yes, makes the con-
servative Sister Aloysius, who has doubts about the liberal Father Flynn, a stand-in
for President Bush, who had no doubts about Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction.

Dreyer's anti-heroine, Anne (Lisbeth Movin, effectively conveying both naivete and unbridled lust), is, supposedly, the daughter of a witch. Her husband, Rev. Absalon Pederssen (Thorkild Roose), isn't just any parson, but the one who determines which village women will die for the sin of witchcraft--and yes, it's always a woman.

Absalon took mercy on Anne's mother, but holds Herlof's Marte (Anna Svierkier, heartbreaking), responsible for doing the Devil's bidding. She denies the charge, and so the torture begins, but it doesn't matter what she says. If the community believes she's guilty, she'll surely burn at the stake. Absalon's mother, Merete (Sigrid Neiien-
dam), is still angry with her son for failing to inflict conflagration on Anne's mother.

When it's just Anne, Absalon, and Merete, the young woman feels stifled, but when Absalon's son, Martin (Preben Lerdorff Rye), comes to visit, she springs to life. Blinded by love for his wife and son, Absalon encourages their friendship and fails
to notice the obvious mutual attraction, but Merete is certain they're up to no good. Like Sister Aloysius in the Shanley play-turned-film, she has no proof, but no-
tices the two spending a lot of time together. Unsupervised. In the bucolic woods.

Until this point, Day of Wrath plays like literary melodrama, but as Anne's love for Martin grows, she becomes emboldened, rash...and even a little scary. In other words, she starts to act like the 17th-century version of a witch: a confident, outspok-
en woman who'll do whatever it takes to get what she wants. She won't break the law, she won't commit murder, but she will wish her husband dead, so she can marry his son. In fact, that's exactly what she does: wishes. And thus begins her downfall.

That's also when the genre shifts. Day of Wrath may work as a powerful metaphor for the rise of the Nazi Party, but the thought never crossed my mind while watching Dreyer's masterful, if neglected film. Instead I thought about Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Todd Haynes' Sirk"nspired Far from Heaven; mirror-laden, color-coded cri de coeurs for ordinary, middle-class women made to suffer for being ordinary, middle-class women. And for having a few thoughts in their heads.

Anne, however, is a darker-hued creature than those sleek suburbanites, and that's where the noir comes in. Dreyer has compassion for her plight--she married young and is unable to bear children--but what to make of her recklessness? It's not that she wants her husband or mother-in-law to catch her consorting with Martin, but that she ceases to care. Dreyer also suggests she might have supernatural powers. True or not, Anne believes she does, and the very idea thrills her. If she felt guilty, that would be one thing, but she revels in the belief that she can control life and death.

After making Day of Wrath, which won him few fans with the Danish authorities, Dreyer fled for Sweden, his mother's birthplace, until after the war. Would that Anne--and other women like her--have had the same opportunity to hop on a bus and relocate to a place where they could be themselves in all their complicated glory.

Day of Wrath, in a restored 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum from
12/26-1/1 at 7 and 9pm. The film was previously only available as part of the Criterion Collection's four-disc Dreyer set, though earlier this year Criterion issued a beautiful two-disc version of the director's Vampyr, so Wrath can't be far behind (wrath is never far behind!). The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here or call 206-329-2629. Images from Cinema em Cena, Coosa Creek Cinema, The House Next Door, and Only the Cinema.

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