Saturday, 29 March 2014

The birds and the beetles… Erotikon (1920)

This slick comedy illustrates just why Mauritz Stiller was so admired in Hollywood following on from his equally knowing and thoroughly modern films featuring Thomas Graal. Along with Lubitsch (who this film influenced), he was the master of sophisticated European cinematic suggestiveness with this film containing much about Eros and very little of the more overtly-functional specifics a casual glimpse at the title might indicate…   

It’s not exactly Lars von Trier but for the time Erotikon must have been shocking enough with its freewheeling infidelities and close-relations-relationships

Anders de Wahl and Tora Teje
Along with the great Victor Sjöström, Stiller produced World-class films in a period when Sweden was able to compete on equal terms not just with Germany and France but also America, building on a great theatrical tradition through the war years when it wasn’t possible to import films from those involved in the conflict. The quality of their film production, performance and cinematography was second to none.

Here Stiller takes a zoological view of human relations, comparing bourgeois social mores with the sex life of the beetles that form the focus of one of the central characters academic studies.

Based on A kék róka (The Blue Fox Stole) a play by Ferenc Herczeg, Erotikon was an ambitious production successfully aimed at overseas markets, it featured sumptuous sets designed by Stiller himself as well as aerial photography and a cast of many dozen beetles.

The sex lives of Beetles and one of the film's many witty intertitles
Professor Leo Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) is the entomologist in question and he is almost totally absorbed in his studies even if he can only attract a half dozen students to his stultifying lectures. His wife Irene (Tora Tejz) is left alone top her own devices and these prove not inconsiderable.

She drops off Leo’s forgotten brief case at the university and then checks her hectic diary: “2pm, teach the furrier some patience, 3pm go flying with Baron Felix…” and off she goes as Leo beetles off to prepare for his passion.

Karin Molander keener than most of the Professor's students...
At the University, Leo’s niece Marthe (Karin Molander) works diligently drawing beetles as well as drawing male students to her like bees to a flower. Listening in, she is  rather too excited by her uncle's discussion on and is greeted with a disapproving look from the elderly Professor Sidonius (Torsten Hammarén), poised like an arthritic preying mantis.

Marthe dotes on Uncle Leo and thinks Aunt Irene equally marvellous oblivious to her wide range of friendships but then she has her own reasons for flattery.

Irene spends an awfully long time not deciding on what furs to buy and then tells the exasperated shop owner that she will return tomorrow.She bumps into her friend the Baron (Vilhelm Bryde) in his 100 horsepower sports car: how the other half lived in 1920's Stockholm.

Up, up and away...
Irene makes her appointment with the Baron and off they fly up into the friendly sky. Leo’s best friend is a handsome sculptor Preben Wells (Lars Hanson, didn’t really need to mention “handsome” there did I?) who spots the couple and the plane: is he interested for his pal’s sake or his own?

Henrik Jaenzon’s cinematography is, like much else in the film , excellent and the aerial shots are fascinating especially as the plane flies close to ground passing over Preben as he looks up in concern.

A dinner party is held at the house and we see the complex relationship between Preben and Irene as she plays a love song on the piano, "Jeg Elsker Dig" (I Love You) and he smokes his pipe lost in thought – not surprisingly given the rather risqué dress she is wearing: the Twenties obviously started roaring early on in Sweden.

After they have eaten the party head off to the theatre to watch a ballet about the infidelity of an Arabian queen: Schaname. It's fascinating to watch a ballet from this period and the staging and choreography are spectacular with dancers Martin Oscár as the Shah and Carina Ari as the tragic herione Schaname.

A night at the opera
The show’s adult themes challenge the watchers as Irene looks at the Baron, Preben looks at her and Leo thinks perhaps of beetles… There are some witty shots of the audience as one wife pulls the opera glasses from her husband as he spends rather too much time admiring the leading dancer.
Don't look now...
Earlier Leo had calmly discussed how many mates specific beetles have as in some cases “one female is never enough”, and it’s not just some of the audience in the ballet that have similar perspectives. But beetles are more straightforward than people and what follows is a confusion of motives and interpretation as everyone miss-understands everyone else.
Preben might be worried for Leo and Irene but he also wants Irene and her splendid wardrobe for himself. But, the Professor’s wife is seemingly engaged in pursuit of the dashing Baron… her signals are confusing.

Tora Teje
At the same time, Professor Leo is oblivious not just to his wife’s obvious courting displays but also the close admiration of his niece (and I really hope she’s not a blood relative!).

Things come to a head when Irene returns to the frustrated furrier and sees Preben’s model try to order an expensive stole on his account… She leaves before the young lady’s request is declined after a phone call to the artist.

Then Preben sees the Baron enter an apartment with a young woman who looks very much like Irene… Both are now feeling betrayed by the other and as Preben points the finger in front of the astonished Leo, Irene heads off back to mother (Elin Lagergren) whilst the sculptor urges the Professor to seek satisfaction from the Baron: a duel that can surely have only one winner!

Preben is concerned for Leo's honour
No spoilers:  The various strands are tied up very neatly in a well-balanced closing sequence which I won’t reveal. The performances are superb with Tora Teje the stand out as her boredom and thrill-seeking is revealed as something else all together as  the real sadness in her life comes to the fore.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes with a really interesting modern score from Bruce Bennett which works around the action, creating a mood slightly at odds with some of the emotional shifts but none-the-less it's very interesting musically. For me it succeeds in connecting over the whole film by mirroring the uncertainty of the characters’ motivations and the film’s detached and forensic approach to its subjects. 

It’s also worth mentioning the inter-titles which feature illustrations passing sneaky comment on the story and characters… very post-modern design from Alva Lindbohm Lundin.

Erotikon is available direct from Kino or from online retailers named after a big river in Brazil.

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