The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage ★★★★

When Ingmar Bergman asked Victor Sjostrom if he had still ever watched his older films in the 1950s, Sjostrom replied that he didn't because he was embarrassed by them. Maybe an unfair assessment, but as time goes on (in my opinion anyways) Sjostrom does seem increasingly primitive compared to his contemporaries. Here, Melies would probably find the double exposures laughable, and the film is probably overreliant on titlecards - it's a glossier Sjostrom project than the rawness from his earlier works which make those more striking, yet even with these sort of technological backswings, the film still manages to retain a remarkable emotional power. It's filled with the obvious symbolism that is so annoying in Bergman, but it also has an austere stateliness which calls to mind not Bergman as much as Dreyer - the latter who would call Sjostrom's The Sons of Ingmar one of the films that influenced him the most.

So, ultimately Sjostrom is JUST a storyteller. No harm there. The Phantom Carriage is essentially little more than an old-fashioned Christian morality play on the redemption of a sinner, with a typically emotionally cathartic but problematic ending. Yet, one can oddly see Sjostrom trying to play catch-up here - this lacks the rawness of something like Outlaw And His Wife but rather combines the austerity of Sons of Ingmar with Griffith-esque montage - mostly manifesting through its unique structure. The film plays out in four "sections," each within the timeline of the first - the present. Section two is the ethereal space of double-exposures where no-one can hear or see David Holm or Death, section three takes place within a flashback, and section four takes place as a flashback within that flashback. The present section only happens over a single night, yet it contains all the other sequences which the movie covers - what seems almost half a lifetime. It's a remarkable conceit - far more impressive than something like Citizen Kane which essentially does the same thing, not the least because it doesn't draw attention to itself. At the same time, it's such a unique and elaborate structure that I almost wish it did - this formal apparatus is the most interesting thing about the film, and it deserves to be explored more. But Sjostrom is a storyteller first and foremost. Fair, but a shame, since it's a classic montage expansion and re-definition of time via cinema.

Oddly, similarly to Kane, the film doesn't necessarily draw much from its structure (which is probably why I think Sjostrom, though underrated, sits a considerable level below the heights of his best contemporaries even when he is at his best) but rather from the strength of its performances and detail in its mileu. Every sequence that Borgstrom and Sjostrom share is remarkable, even if merely performance. The combination of this and the films mileu oddly helps undercut the otherwise wily Christianity going on here - it helps that Sjostrom plays a virtually irredeemable scumbag - it undercuts the films sense of sanctimoniousness. The mere eyeline matches of Sjostrom and Borgstrom meeting again after years is intensely moving, as is a later scene where the family unit breaks down because of the paternal family member themselves - Kubrick famously drew from this scene for The Shining. It's an oddly "special-but-not" film - but the strength of what works here elevates the fact that this film has virtually no significant ideas to a surprising extent.

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