Sunday, July 21, 2002


There has been much written about this silent film, mostly concerning the supposed real-life affair between Greta Garbo and John Gilbert that was going on during the making of the movie, and it's true that, whatever their personal relationship, they do have a steamy chemistry on screen here. But I think the most interesting thing in the movie is the theme of homoerotic male bonding; the couple we are really supposed to root for is not Garbo and Gilbert, but Gilbert and his lifelong friend, Lars Hanson.

The narrative begins with the two men together in the German army. Gilbert seems to always be getting in trouble, and Hanson helps him escape punishment. Their relationship began in childhood, and we see a flashback of them taking a blood oath together on "The Isle of Friendship." Gilbert meets Garbo at a party; she is portrayed as a beautiful but wicked seducer, reveling in the pleasures of the flesh. The two have what seems to be a one-night stand, but while in their post-coital bliss, her husband interrupts--Garbo didn't tell Gilbert that she was married. A duel ensues which Gilbert wins, but to spare Garbo scandal, he agrees to the fiction that the disagreement was over cards; Gilbert is sent by the army to a remote post. While he's gone, he asks Hanson to watch over Garbo. He does so, falls in love, and marries her, all the time not knowing about Gilbert's love for her. (The two have little heat between them, with Garbo marrying Hanson so as to remain financially comfortable.) When Gilbert returns a few years later, the triangle strains the friendship of the two men and leads to another duel.

Garbo is indeed lovely and lusty; her most scandalous scene takes place during mass when a priest who knows the hidden relationship between Garbo and Gilbert delivers a hellfire sermon about the wickedness of woman, aimed at Garbo. She ignores it and proceeds to take communion along with both men, even turning the chalice deliberately so she can drink the wine from the exact spot where Gilbert's lips were. If anyone could make taking communion an erotic act, it's Garbo. It may be going a bit too far to think that the two men have a physical attraction, but they are frequently touching and hugging all through the film, and there is [SPOLIER!] the famous finale, where, just as Gilbert and Hanson are about to duel, Garbo falls through the ice to her death and both men feel a mystical frisson that tells them not to go through with it. They embrace, knowing supernaturally that Devil Woman is out of the way and they can be together in their manly but innocent love. Very lushly produced and photographed, with some lovely snow scenes; the shots of Garbo and Gilbert kissing in the dark are small masterpieces of light and shadow.

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