EROTIKON (Mauritz Stiller, 1920, Sweden, 97m, BW)
aka When We Are Married (1920)
aka Just Like a Man (1920)
aka Bounds That Chafe (1920)
aka Seduction (1920)
aka Riddaren av i gar (1920)
aka Erotikon (1920)
Cast: Lars Hanson, Stina Berg, Vilhelm Berntsson, Tora Teje, Anders de Wahl, Lars Hansson, Karin Molander
Director: Mauritz Stiller
Writer: Mauritz Stiller, Arthur Norden, Gustaf Molander, Ferenc Herczeg
Running Time: 97 min.
Irene, the bored wife of a distracted entomologist, pursues a womanizing aviator, but she may actually be in love with Preben, her husband's best friend. Meanwhile, her husband seems to be getting unusually close with his own niece. Stiller obviously delights in teasing his audience with each scandalous plot twist and every salacious leer, and the result is a deliciously subversive comedy that was very much ahead of its time.
Erotikon is a nicely-done silent drawing-room comedy, but it does move a tad slowly for modern tastes, with, frankly, the laughs being few and far between. Its modern appeal lies in its resolute refusal to take the institution of marriage as anything sacred; the ties that bind are quickly abandoned by the end of the film, almost without a second thought. But Cowie is right to emphasise that Stiller’s film has nothing of the melancholy of his beloved Bergman’s comedies (e.g. Smiles of a Summer’s Night), although you might think so judging by the dirge-like score that is on Kino’s DVD. I’m usually very tolerant of the scores that come with silent movies — basically, silent film was never meant to be viewed silently — but here is one case where you need to turn off the soundtrack. Otherwise you’ll forget that this is a comedy.
The romantic situation is one of a marriage gone stale, if it wasn’t stillborn in the first place. The mismatched married couple are Professor Leo Charpentier and his wife Irene. He’s older than her, but hardly a doddery absent-minded professor (that role is taken by his colleague Professor Sidonius, with his contorted-body antics the film’s one true comic creation). Instead, he’s a staid, comfortable, middle-aged bourgeois, completely out of tune with his wife’s energy, vivacity, and modern appeal. He also has a more than close relationship with his slightly plump, homey live-in niece Marte, who is clearly enamoured with him—she studies cookbooks for his favourite recipe of mutton casserole and helps him on with his tie, both tasks that Irene declines to do. Instead, Irene makes do with her considerable sex appeal—see how she quickly makes Leo forget the help Marte gave him with his tie by calling him over to attend to her flimsy, revealing dress.
In addition to her husband Irene has two men dancing in attendance on her. The first is sculptor Preben Wells, Leo’s closest friend, who is clearly in love with her, a love which it seems — judging by the love tune she plays for him in the presence of her husband — she returns. The second is the aristocratic playboy Baron Felix, who in one early scene takes her flying in his private airplane. The appearance is that she is carrying on an affair with the baron, although in the end this seems not to be the case. In an early scene of the film the professor himself presents to the audience the romantic triangulations that the film will explore. He gives a lecture on his entomological specialty, the tree beetle, and its mating variations that run the range of one mate, two mates, and, in the case of one particular beetle, even three mates. The one surprise is that in the film’s story the genders will be reversed: Irene is the special polygamous type, with three men in train: Leo, Preben, and the Baron.
A further parallel to their romantic situation is provided by a lavish and risqué ballet all four attend. (Peter Cowie tells us that Erotikon was one of the most expensive Swedish films produced to date, and you can believe it watching this theatre scene, with the huge cast and elaborate set of this Salome-like ballet, and with a theatre filled to the brim with extras.) In the ballet, the Shah’s wife — who also indulges in a dance performance in an even more revealing state of semi-undress than Irene — loves his best friend, attempts to seduce him, and has him jailed when he rebuffs her; the Shah on his return has his loyal friend killed.
The parallels between the characters of the ballet and the three in the theatre box watching the ballet are clear, although not to the professor who merely comments that he prefers the comedy demanded of the motion picture to this tragedy. This idea will be picked up by Irene in the last section of the film: after Preben confronts her with his suspicions that she has a liaison with the baron and then rather violently rejects her laughing declaration of her love for him, she promises that she will offer tragedy rather than comedy—telling Leo she has deceived him, deciding on divorce, and leaving for mother’s. Overall, a surprisingly modern and funny comedy about love and betrayal by Mauritz Stiller. The most striking aspect is that comic situations are suggested rather than shown. There is a lot of innuendo in the acting and understatement or double meaning in the dialogues.
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