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Wednesday, March 14, 2012

KÖRKARLEN / THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921)

Victor Sjöström wrote, directed & starred in this silent film adaptation of Nobel-laureate Selma Lagerlöf’s once-famous novel. The latest Criterion DVD (2011) from a Swedish restoration, has come up well, a full 107 minute cut, with fine grain & handsome tints, plus a choice of music tracks (slightly weird & very weird). Yet, the film only partially meets its classic status, too careful by half, too weighed down by literary prestige; quite the opposite of Sjöström’s Hollywood work which soars regardless of its source material. The story plays out over a series of New Year’s Eves, a day when the last man to die takes the reins of the ghostly Phantom Carriage and becomes Death’s teamster. Sjöström’s wastrel is the man on deck. But before he can begin, he’s shown how he got there in a series of visions from his New Year’s Eves past. Watching his own life spiral out of control, chasing away his wife, kids, friends, anyone who would help him break the cycle of disease & drunkenness, seems to have little effect . . . until it’s probably too late. Visually, this is often powerful stuff (best at its darkest moments like one with a raggedy coat or when a father attempts to infect his own children), and the double-exposures are rightly acclaimed. But on film it grows uncomfortably close to Dickens’ A CHRISTMAS CAROL, with Scrooge & Cratchit merged as one. And, with the dour Swedish sensibility squeezing out Dickens’ liveliness & variety, the tread of despair & predestination also squeezes out his humanity, and makes the ending suspect.

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