Sunday, December 29, 2013

Film Review: The Phantom Carriage

"The Phantom Carriage"  **** (out of ****)

In time for New Year's Eve, here is Victor Sjostrom's masterpiece "The Phantom Carriage" (1921).

An old legend tells us, the last person to die before the bells chime midnight on New Year's Eve will be forced to drive the Grim Reaper's horse and carriage and collect the souls of the dead for the rest of the year, until the following New Year's Eve.

For readers unaware Victor Sjostrom was called, by Ingmar Bergman no less, the father of Swedish cinema. Bergman never hid his appreciation for the actor/ filmmaker and even gave him a starring role in his masterpiece, "Wild Strawberries" (1959, which I have reviewed). Some have cited the influence "The Phantom Carriage" had on Bergman's "The Seventh Seal" (1957). Which in some concepts it does recall but I also thought of Charles Dickens and his novel "A Christmas Carol".

I am not familiar with the films of Sjostrom. In fact, I have just told you all I know about him but there is no denying "The Phantom Carriage" is a masterpiece. The work of a pure craftsmen. A man with a very distinct vision. I am extremely curious to see more of Sjostrom's work and discover if there is another film of the caliber of "The Phantom Carriage" in his cannon of films.

This is a film about death, redemption, love and God. But as I already mentioned, what it reminds me most of is Dickens. Whereas "A Christmas Carol" tells us the story of a man who learns the error of his ways through Christmas, in "The Phantom Carriage" a man learns to redeem himself on New Year's Eve. With a new year we have a clean slate. A chance to rectify the past and start over.

Sjostrom plays David Holm. A man full of hate. He spends his days drinking. Life has lost all purpose for him. His heart has turned cold. He is in a loveless marriage and mistreats his children. But, this wasn't the way it always was. David was a good man who loved his wife and children and had a steady job. It was when he met Georges (Tore Svennberg) that his life took a turn for the worst. Georges made David become a drunkard. Because of his new lifestyle David is thrown in prison for disorderly conduct but so has his brother, who killed a man while drunk. This changes David's life. He vows to turn over a new leaf.

But David has caused too much damage to his wife (Hilda Borgstrom) and their children. She cannot deal with David's violent behavior and his drinking. Before David is released from prison, she takes the children and leaves. When David comes home and finds she has left him, he turns cold. His heart is now full of spite. He will get his revenge by finding his wife and making her life miserable. She will regret the day she left him in such a cowardly fashion. Leaving him without confronting him and allowing him the chance to show her he has changed.

With nothing to live for and no job David spends his days and nights drinking. All that is on his mind is revenge. His hatred is what keeps him going. What gives him the drive to live. He will find her. On his journey he finds Sister Edit (Astrid Holm) who works for the Salvation Army along with Sister Maria (Lisa Lundholm). On their first day open to the public, New Year's Eve, David, in a drunken stupor, wobbles into their shelter, looking for a place to sleep. Sister Edit shows him to a cot and notices his jacket is ripped. While David sleeps she sews his coat all through the night.

This sequence, for me, is the most memorable for what happens next. In an attempt to show what kind of despicable person David is he undoes all the work Sister Edit has done when he awakes and sees his coat sown. The movie expresses David's inner conflict through music. As David awakens and sees his coat, we hear sweet music, expressing he has been touched by this kind gesture. We even see him smile and admire the coat. He inquires who fixed his coat and then something snaps. We hear disturbing music in conflict with the sweet music. Here is David's dual personality. He cannot allow goodness to find its way in his soul. Hate is all he has. When Sister Edit sees him, David shreds the coat.

Sister Edit sees David as a blessing. He will test her faith. She makes it her mission to redeem him.

In another scene, David walks home drunk. It is late. His children are sleeping as his wife stays up, waiting for him to come home. The door is locked. This makes David angry. He pounds on the door. His wife hurries to open it, not wanting the children to wake up. David walks in and sees his two daughter sound asleep. He walks over to them and start flicking at their ears, shaking the bed in the hopes of waking them up. We are lead to think to ourselves, what kind of man would do this?

David has concocted a "movie disease", where he coughs a lot. If you've ever seen a movie before, when someone coughs it is usually a sign they will die. David has this disease. And so he coughs in the face of his wife, hoping she will catch what he has. Within this scene David is locked in a room as once again his wife and children try to escape. In order to leave the room David finds an ax and breaks the door down. This sequence made me think of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining" (1980) and the famous scene when Jack Nicholson, also with an ax in hand, breaks down a door and delivers his famous "here's Johnny" line. I wonder if Kubrick saw this movie and was paying homage to it. They are very similar scenes.

It is difficult to further discuss the movie and its themes and it relationship to "A Christmas Carol" without revealing the entire plot. I won't ruin the cinematic experience for you.

All I will say is Sjostrom was a very capable actor. We despise his character in this movie. He goes to great lengths to invoke that emotion in the audience. But we also believe he is redeemable. We sense the struggle within him. Sjostrom is the heart and soul of the movie.

"The Phantom Carriage" made a lasting impression on me in the way it goes about exploring this theme of salvation. This is an emotional film. At certain times it has an eerie quality to it. Much like a nightmare it is unsettling. Other times it dwells deep in melodrama. This is a powerful film.

Happy New Year!