Daily Archives: April 8, 2020

The Portrait (1915)

*. Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Portrait” runs for just over 60 pages in my English translation and this film is only eight minutes long. There are a couple of explanations for this. In the first place, it’s reportedly all that survives of what was originally a 45-minute feature. In addition, it’s the most filmable part of the story, representing the sole dramatic highlight.
*. In the story a struggling artist buys a haunting portrait of a man in a second-hand shop. When he brings it home it magically comes to life, with the man stepping out of the painting and counting rolls of gold coins, one of which the artist grabs.
*. This is all we have left in what survives of the film, and it works quite well. We don’t even need title cards to explain what’s happening, and there is no dialogue. Gogol’s story goes on to describe the rise and fall of the artist, who has sold his soul to the devil by taking the gold. He becomes a rich and famous artist and then goes mad. Then in a long epilogue some of the back story of the painting is filled in. This part of the story is more thematic in nature, and more involved in making an argument. I could see it working in a silent film, but it would have been a challenge. As it is, I think the best reel survived, and probably not by accident.
*. Stripped of any musings about the nature of creativity, what it means to make sacrifices for one’s art, and the ambiguous blessings of fame, what we’re left with is the scene where Sadako comes crawling out of the television set in Ringu. Early filmmakers had played similar tricks with paintings coming to life, but I can’t think of any who give it the same creep factor. And even though it’s necessarily limited, I think it does a nice job of suggesting the dream/nightmare of the portrait’s transformation by its placement above the painter’s sleeping head.
*. It’s not the kind of film I’d immediately associate with the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz, best known today for his inventive stop-motion shorts involving insects. Then again, it’s not a typical Gogol story either. As we have it it’s hard to evaluate, being only a scene cut from a larger whole. As fragments go, however, it’s one of the most haunting we have.