Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 10, 2022 10:05 pm 
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The young poet and the superstar

The celebrated Danish director Bille August has had a forty-year career that includes a Cannes Palme d'Or and an Academy Award. Some of his films are famous. There is a certain tameness and conventionality about his work, however. And this mars The Pact. The title refers to an agreement between the famous almost-Nobel-winning author Karen Blixen (still revered for her work in English and Danish as Isak Dinesen), the Baroness von Blixen, the international literary superstar who gave us Out of Africa, and a promising young Danish poet whom she sought to nurture, or perhaps feed off emotionally. This must have been an intense, turbulent relationship but in this dutiful adaptation of the poet's memoir by Christian Torpe, though there are moments, it becomes pretty dull.

There's no better illustration of the power of Isak Dinesen than the way the young Peter Beard, who was destined to be famous as a glamorous jet-setter, a photographer and a champion of African wildlife, briefly took her up and photographed her before she died in 1962 - a year after he graduated from Yale. Beard was young, rich, handsome, charming, and well-born. She was interested. Beard was not merely touched by Out of Africa, but made Dinesen a major inspiration of his life and acquired land adjoining the writer's former failed coffee plantation in Kenya that became the Hog Farm, his lifelong second home in Africa. A movie about Beard and Dinesen might have had more juice.

Maybe Dinesen (played here by Birthe Neumann) tried to manipulate Beard as she manipulates the young Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig (Simon Bennebjerg) here, but Beard was too energetic and too financially independent for it to matter. Thorkild seems a steadfast but timid soul. When Dinesen proposes a solemn "pact" of mutual honor as a prelude to mentoring him, he meekly agrees. Soon she has him stay with her at her family manor house, Rungstedlund, north of Copenhagen. This is where she lived for thirty years and wrote her books; her time in Africa was only seventeen years of her life.

The young poet seems almost a prisoner at the big house for a while, remaining for several extended periods to work even though he has a wife, Grete (Nanna Skaarup Voss), and a cherubic blond child who likes toy trains. He feels as uneasy about this as Grete does, but in the isolation Dinesen provides - she only sees him for an hour at eight p.m. every evening - he begins writing what he thinks may be his best poetry yet, though he's timid about showing it to Dinesen. The situation would be like a writer's residency, only it's a little too private: there are no other writers there, only Thorkild, the Baroness, and the servants. The film may not show to the uninformed the extent to which Rungstedlund was a gathering place and kind of salon for writers, including Thorkild, for years in the Forties and Fifties, though she often kept them apart so she could gossip about some with the others.

It is hard on Grete when she learns from Benedicte, the wife of her husband's patron Knud W. Jensen (Anders Heinrichsen)- arranged by Dinesen, part of their "Pact" - that her husband and Benedicte are deeply in love. Dinesen's behavior is contradictory in all this. She has repeatedly urged Thorkild to cast off his "middle-class" family life and have an affair, insisting "wife" is a word that is never even found in poetry, but when Thorkild and Benedicte get serious as a result of a tryst while Thorkild is on a study grant in Bonn, Dinesen angrily rebukes the young man and calls a halt to the affair, and Benedicte chooses to leave her husband and live abroad to be away from Thorkild. The evening of one of Dinesen's big parties Benedicte leaves early and goes and tells Grete what's been going on. The effect of this news on Grete is devastating. And this is the end of the Pact.

The meetings between Dinesen and Thorkild, Thorkild and Grete, Thorkild and Benedicte, are simple he-said, she-said affairs, with little but drinks and meals, gramophone sessions, and cigarettes to punctuate them. The interior of Rungstedlund is beautiful; Thorkild and Dinesen wear a rich array of outfits: he changes his look as often as she does. But we should not be noticing this; that we do shows not enough is happening.

As an actor Simon Bennebjerg, who plays Thorkild, reminds one of Berenson's concept of "The Ineloquent in Art:" he is so much of a non-presence that it becomes a kind of presence. As Dinesen, Birthe Neumann seems superficially right, but lacks the cadaverous look and the inner sparkle fire that make Beard's later photo portraits and filmed appearances memorable. Even if she didn't look like that yet it might have paid to evoke the look to heighten the sense that this woman was very special.

August has shown a taste for long-suffering types, which may fit Thorkild, Grete, and Benedicte. But may be out of his depth in capturing a personality as obstinate and passionate as Karen Blixen. The tameness of this film does little to convey what must have been a very tense situation. If Thorkild Bjørnvig's memoir is as restrained as this, it needed jazzing up to make an interesting movie.

The Pact/Pagten, 115 mins., in Danish, opened in Denmark Aug. 2021, showing at a few festivals including Beijing, Palm Springs and AFI. Juno Films releases this film in New York Feb. 11, 2022 and Los Angeles and San Francisco Feb. 18.

An hour-long film about Dinesen, Out of this World, is currently on YouTube. See also Wikipedia, Karen Blixen.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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