The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★★

Robert Beksinski's #9 Film Selection for Edgar

For starters, Sjöström disguised himself as a poor man and spent time in the slums of Stockholm in order to prepare for this movie. As questionable as that may seem from a health point of view, that strongly talks about the dedication of an artist.

Secondly, the overwhelming and abundant supernatural content of The Phantom Carriage was enough to be immediately banned by the censors in the 1920s; however, the board censors decided to leave the film intact, opting to avoid a dispute with the Swedish romantic nationalist writer Selma Lagerlöf.

Thirdly, Ingmar Bergman refers to The Phantom Carriage as "the film of all films" and as one of the main influences on his work. He watched it at least once every summer. He was a close follower of Sjöström's work. It is no coincidence that Bergman would hire Sjöström in 1957 as an isolated man who would not only have to face his fears, but also his current existential state and his broken family bonds. Sjöström often incarnated protagonists whose motives where changed in course because of the outcomes of his family, be it because of personal responsibility, or because of external factors.

As a silent film, it stands above the majority of its kind. Silent cinema always had to emphasize the theatricality of the performances and the cinematography, with a proper orchestral soundtrack faithfully reacting to the events on screen with a strong correlation. Early cinema is also "credited" with having "exaggerated performances", which constitutes a biased statement through the eyes of modernity, and an unfair one. So wouldn't critics 100 years ago label our acting as too realistic to be entertaining? There is no right or wrong as absolute terms; there is just perception.

Bringing up the acting is important because, here, nothing is overdone. Although certain sequences may border on the theatrical, they feel authentic. It acts as a supernatural play but flowing smoothly without the need to cause an impression through forced stunts. And still, this is not the most magnificent feat of this ride.

No, the feat is the visuals. This is the very first film I have seen in the history of cinema to pay a high respect to the themes of the supernatural without implying for a second that Sjöström condones the ideals behind the occult. He is a poet of his own attrezzo. Watching the 107-minute version with KTL's soundtrack, which is probably the best I have heard for ANY silent film, simply becomes a spiritual experience. The color tints work perfectly for separating the realms of the living and the dead. Yellow is for the living, red is for memories, and the blue... Jesus, the blue. Blue engulfs everything and indicates we have crossed the supernatural border. With the haunting instrumentation of the soundtrack, stares are made stronger, domestic violence is more disturbing and the phantom carriage with its surroundings and its now iconic horse becomes terror. All scenery is absolutely haunting, from the clock indicating a few minutes before 12:00, to the graveyard where the three drunkards are, to all of the landscapes that the phantom carriage visits during the story that Georges tells. Shots linger for us to admire; they move as smoothly as a phantom, gliding on solid surface or the sea during nighttime, collecting souls. It is easy to give jump scares. It is difficult to reach the soul.

And yet, Sjöström is a cinematic moralist with a humanist tone. That's how he reaches the soul, because if there is some emotional context behind that allows the viewer to empathize with it, then horror is much easier to create because it relates to the characters and affects them. He is a director of dramas, nothing more. This supernatural argument was just a facade to hide a deeper story about the importance of family, hospitality and reciprocity, including unrequited love. The character of David Holm acts as a version of Scrooge while he reflects on the damage he has inflicted on others during key events of his life, and he is now demanded to endure the sights of his emotional slaughters. This idea, with KTL giving me goosebumps and the blue tints assaulting my senses and the yellow ones giving me dramatic nostalghia resulted in one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in this decade.

99/100

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