Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Review: The Criterion Edition of 'The Phantom Carriage'

On the night of New Year’s Eve, Death roams the Swedish countryside, searching for the souls of the recently deceased. The final person to die before the stroke of midnight will take the reaper’s place for the following 365 days. Each day, legend has it, feels like 100 years. Tough gig.

At its most audacious, Victor Sjöström’s adaptation of Selma Lagerlöf’s novel The Soul Shall Bear Witness! is a chilling spook story with revolutionary special effects. The director’s remarkable multi-exposure shots depict Death as a transparent spirit while also placing solid objects in the foreground to achieve a sort of three-plane effect. According to the various historians who contributed commentaries to Criterion’s new edition of The Phantom Carriage, Sjöström sometimes passed the film through his camera as many as four times to create these shots. The film is certainly technically dazzling, but it is a character study at heart. Death’s encounter with the drunkard David Holm (Sjöström) sets up a harrowing venture through his life, poring over Holm’s cruelty, his violence, his outright wickedness. At one point he brags about being a consumptive who purposely coughs in people’s faces because he doesn’t believe anyone should be “better off” than him! Despite being the film’s protagonist, Holm is portrayed as nearly irrevocably awful. Yet Sjöström humanizes the character through the loving, patient women that believe he isn’t beyond redemption: his wife Anna (Hilda Teresia Borgström) and a Salvation Army holy roller named Edit (Astrid Holm).

Criterion is renowned for its masterfully restored films, and The Phantom Carriage certainly lives up to that reputation. Although small portions of the film are in rougher shape than others, the majority of this 90-year-old (!) film is pristine. Seeing such aged images look so fresh is nearly as uncanny as the movie, itself. Criterion adorns its disc with a new “visual essay” on Sjöström’s relationship with and influence on Ingmar Bergman, who supposedly saw The Phantom Carriage some 100 times and cast Sjöström as the lead in Wild Strawberries. A 1981 interview with Bergman digs further into this theme, while Casper Tybjerg’s feature commentary and Paul Mayersberg’s booklet essay manage to expand their analyses beyond Bergman.

These are all fine features, but the most striking boon of Criterion’s DVD and Blu-ray is Matti Bye’s score. Composed for and recorded at a screening of the film in March 1998, Bye’s score enhances the film intricately. A passage that plays over Holms and his soused cohorts’ discussion of Death’s New Year’s Eve activities features a woozy trombone suggesting the characters’ drunkenness over haunting harp arpeggios that tickle out the eeriness of the tale being told. Scraping strings denote the hideous creaking of the carriage’s wheels. An orchestral crescendo pushes the penultimate scene into almost unbearable intensity. Bye’s score would remain a superb piece of music even if divorced from Sjöström’s creepy images. A second score by experimental duo KTL can only suffer in comparison. Its synthesized drones are atmospheric, but they quickly grow tedious and fail to enhance the film’s non-horrific moments, its pathos and rarer flourishes of humor. Only Bye’s eclectically arranged and toned score does justice to Sjöström’s equally varied film.

Get The Phantom Carriage at Amazon.com on DVD and Blu-ray.
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