Directed by: Carl Theodor Dreyer
Countries & Regions: Denmark
Studio: British Film Institute
Region: Region 2
Released: 13 March 2006
Cat No: BFIVD664
Screen ratio 1:1.33
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Master of the House
Also available on DVD
Victor Fransden (Johannes Meyer) is a businessman who takes out all his frustrations on his wife, Ida (Astrid Holm), and family. Ida... Read More
Watch and learn.
If the original title of this wonderfully satisfying come-uppance tale, Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife, sounds sternly moralistic, Master of the House is nicely ironic. Because of his wife’s ‘cheerful acceptance of drabness and monotony’, Viktor has come to take her, and his familial situation, for granted. He has become a nasty, petty, unreasonable tyrant with a complaint for every situation. His part is played with discomorting plausibility by Johannes Meyer.
At the beginning of the film, the lively business of the preparations for the day are intercut with shots of Viktor sleeping. After he does stir himself, the industry of the household is beholden to his grumbling and sniping. When his old nanny, Mads, arrives to help Ida for the day, she says nothing, but misses nothing either, from the scrimping on Ida’s portion of butter to Viktor’s persistent unprovoked moaning. She sits there stewing, hatching a plan. When she finally erupts with a cry of ‘Brute!’, she goes out to find Ida’s mother who rejects money as an easy solution. ‘I won’t pay my son-in-law to treat my daughter properly’, says she. So they decide; Ida is going to her mother’s and Mads is moving in with Viktor. So commences one of the most joyful rides of re-education it’s possible to see, with Mads systematically demolishing Viktor’s pride and contempt and repaying in full his every last ingratitude.
Adapted from a stage play, the film is pared down to essentials of dialogue, setting and filming – I doubt there’s a frame surplus to requirements in the entire film. This is not to say it’s minimalist but rather no characters or situations are overdone as they so easily could have been in other’s hands. Simply, it’s just right. This being a Dreyer film, it also has carefully plotted resonances of composition throughout. Take the scene where Viktor tries to visit Ida at her mother’s. As the doctor hands him his hat so he will leave, there is an oblique patch of light on the wall behind Viktor’s head. When we cut to Ida in bed, her white-linen clad arm is angled to her face at much the same angle as the light on the wall in the previous scene. As well as being satisfactory psychologically in showing that Ida and Viktor’s relationship has not completely fractured, it is also an aesthetically pleasing way of linking scenes. (By Day of Wrath and Ordet, light has become almost a character in its own right in Dreyer’s films.)
The titles at the start of the film say that the saintly Ida, with her Lillian Gish like quality of forbearance, is the heroine of the film. For many however, the real heroine is Mads, whose demeanour can shift from empathy to sternness in a moment. The performance of the role by Mathilde Nielsen is perfect.
Though the film ends with harmony restored in the Frandsen household, Dreyer recognises that this is just one case and shows in a few brief moments how things are more generally. When a man in the street sees Viktor emptying the ashes , he clears his nostril disdainfully on the pavement, and there are a few signs too that Fredrik and Karen, Ida’s son and daughter, could do with watching too, in case either of them find themselves in a similar situation as their parents. It seems that Mads, or someone like her, will need to be vigilant for a long time yet.
One symbol for Ida throughout the film is a caged bird, to the extent that at one point Viktor and Mads physically tussle over possession of the cage. At the end of the film, the bird is still caged but is at least cared for and appreciated by all. In the very final moments of the film, and previewing a scene from Ordet 30 years later, Ida sets the clock pendulum swinging. Life together can begin anew.