Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but prior to this movie, I was unfamiliar with Birthe Neumann. Most of her 50-year career has been spent in Denmark projects (film, TV, stage), but her screen presence here is such that I feel compelled to seek out some of her early work in order to catch up on what now feels like a gap in my movie watching. Ms. Neumann stars as writer Karen Blixen (pen name Isak Dinesen), who published her 1937 memoir, “Out of Africa”. The adapted book became a Best Picture Oscar winner starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford. A couple of years later (1987) the film adapted from Blixen’s story “Babette’s Feast” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
Director Bille August (PELLE THE CONQUEROR, 1987) and screenwriter Christian Torpe bring Thorkild Bjornvid’s memoir to the screen. You might ask why then the opening paragraph was not about Mr. Bjornvid, a noted Danish writer and poet. The answer is derived from the fact that while the process of writing doesn’t translate well to the big screen, complicated relationships definitely do … and the bond between Blixen and Bjornvid (played here by Simon Benebjerg) was about as complicated and convoluted as one can get. Ms. Blixen was somewhat of an isolated literary icon when she first met the 30ish Bjornvid in 1948. What followed can only be described as a Faustian deal where she promised to make him a great writer if he followed her every direction to a “T”. She says to him, “Have faith and I will protect you.” The stipulations included moving into her compound and being apart from his wife Grete (Nanna Skarrup Voss) and child for long stretches.
Of course, we all dream of having someone bankroll our hobby so that we may leisurely pursue our passions. This was more than that. Blixen was living with the long-term effects of her syphilis and the loss of her friend/lover/companion (detailed in her memoir). Her bitterness filled her with contempt for anything other than the sole pursuit of artistic passions, and Ms. Neumann’s performance is so authentic we are taken aback at times (just like Bjornvid). We know the price to pay for such a deal is sure to be high. Soon enough, Bjornvid becomes infatuated with Benedicte Jensen (Asta Kamma August, the daughter of the director), the wife of Neumann’s friend Knud (Anders Heinrichsen) and the temptation is too strong.
The situation and the film raise many questions. Should one follow their gift, regardless of the cost to others? Is selling the soul a fair price for reaching greatness? Is risk and pain and sacrifice necessary to reach one’s artistic peak? It’s painful to watch the young poet surrender to his elderly patron, but it’s fascinating to see how Karen Blixen spurs the writer to improvement. How far would you go to achieve your dreams?
Opening in NYC on February 11, 2022 and expanding on February 18, 2022