This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

Excerpts from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire
"A Parable for Critics"
a discussion of Day of Wrath
(Vredens Dag)

Click here for best printing of Day of Wrath text

In the emphasis on the so-called spirituality of Dreyer's work, it is sometimes forgotten that our physical selves and sexual energies are as important within his films as our hearts and souls and minds. It is not surprising that Dreyer should be interested in both aspects of his characters. His films take as their subject practical acts of expression. Our bodies are the way we express our spirits for Dreyer. That is why, despite the fact that he is often thought to be the most chaste of filmmakers, there are scenes of sexual encounters, or references to sexual encounters, in each of Dreyer's films from Vampyr to Gertrud. Our practical sexuality is one of the principal ways we express our emotions in the world, as not only this film, but Dreyer's next important film, Ordet, emphasizes.

Furthermore, sexual and physical expressions have a very special and diacritical relationship to social forms of discourse in Dreyer's work. If Dreyer is the supreme poet of all of the ways we attempt to rise above or go beyond the limitations of social categories of understanding in our "higher" selves (in our dreams, visions, and emotions), he is also the poet of all the ways our "lower" selves equally escape from social structures and repressive understandings. Our sexual and physical selves are as much at war with the repressions of society as our spirits are, and it is not accidental that Dreyer would be interested in those aspects of our being which extend below man-made rules and ideologies. To understand "transcendence" in this way–not as as a state of pure spirituality, but simply as meaning any escape from systems of normalization and control–is to realize that our bodies and senses potentially "transcend" limiting representations as much as our souls and ideals do.

One of the ways in which Dreyer asserts an alternative to the semiotic depersonalizations and neutralizations represented by Absalon and the churchmen is through a reinstallation of the actual physical body into a depersonalized expressive system like that of the church's rituals of interrogation and torture. Herlofs Marte's body in particular represents a realm of the senses that is pointedly not accounted for by the theological abstractions involving sin and transgression in the books of the church elders and the confession she is tortured into giving.

The actress who plays Marte, Anna Svierkier, has an extraordinarily interesting body and face, of which Dreyer and his director of photography, Karl Andersson, heighten a viewer's awareness in a variety of ways. The key-lighting and choice of lenses encourage an almost painfully over-intimate awareness of her wrinkled skin, her sagging breasts, her disheveled hair, the lines on her face, and the moistness of her eyes. The point is to reinstate a particular, physical body at the center of an otherwise impersonal ceremony of confession. Herlofs Marte will not be made into a disembodied functionary in an impersonal system. While the churchmen and their ceremony attempt to neutralize or deny the body, for the sake of saving the spirit separate from it, Dreyer and Andersson affirm the reality of the realm of the senses.

Reinstalling the human body and senses, in all of their ungeneralizable particularity, at their place at the center of life, and as the fundamental source of all expression, is only one step in a larger expressive project in which Dreyer is engaged in Day of Wrath. The larger project is a demonstration that Marte (and later Anne) will not be reduced to being impersonal functions in any system of generalized, formal relationships. As Dreyer realizes, if capitalism depends on the denaturing of commodities to make productive standardization possible, it depends equally on the denaturing of the producers, the abstraction of their identities. Just as Protestantism defines the body as something that must be subjugated or ignored for the sake of the soul, so capitalism reduces the individual to an abstracted functionary in an impersonal system.

The passionate expressiveness of Marte's face and frightened eyes, her unpredictably shifting vocal tones, her whimpers, screams, pleas, and sobs, her agitated, impulsive gestures, and her tears represent manifestations of eccentric, fluxional imaginative energies that will never be abstractly summarized by or "spoken within" an abstract system of understanding. They are her reply to the normalizing, standardizing understandings that the church would apply to her. As the churchmen try to categorize her, to repressively understand her as a witch, to subject her to a series of impersonal ceremonies of interrogation and confession, her expressive mobility, eccentricity, and wildness tell us what their systems can never understand or eliminate.

Contrast the ways in which the churchmen who conduct the interrogation are represented. Not only are their vocal tones normalized but the very questions they ask and the answers they record during the interrogation are abstract, depersonalized, dispassionate formulas. In contrast with Marte, who is wearing a rough, ragged, torn dress that reveals as much flesh as it conceals, their bodies are buttoned up from foot to throat and are hidden. They have sacrificed their distinctive expressive identities to institutional systems, while Marte is emphatically what will be "spoken" neither by an abstract system of clothing nor within a formal ceremony of theological interrogation....

This page only contains excerpts and selected passages from Ray Carney's Speaking the Language of Desire: The Films of Carl Dreyer. To obtain the book from which this discussion is excerpted, click here.

To read more about critical fashions, see the essay "Sargent and Criticism" in the Paintings section, "Capra and Criticism" in the Frank Capra section, and "Skepticism and Faith," "Irony and Truth," "Looking without Seeing," and other pieces in the Academic Animadversions section. To obtain more information about Ray Carney's writing on contemporary criticism, click here.

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Text Copyright 2003 by Ray Carney. All rights reserved. May not be reprinted without written permission of the author.