The length some artists are willing to go to in order to curry favor with industry gatekeepers knows no end. But what happens if we are blinded by admiration for a legend and allow the destruction of valued relationships? Are fame and fortune worth mortgaging personal happiness? This is the dilemma that Thorkild Bjørnvig (Simon Bennejberg) finds himself in The Pact, the Danish drama helmed by Billie August based on the true story of famous author Karen Blixen (Birthe Neumann), and her complicated relationship later in life with the much-younger Thorkild.
Renowned globally due to her classic 1937 memoir, Out of Africa, by the 1940s, Karen’s health had taken a turn for the worse due to advanced syphilis and mental illness. Even with these ailments, she used her expansive mansion to host several struggling artists to help them improve their craft. Thorkild, a struggling writer living nearby with his wife Grete (Nanna Skaarup Vossand) and infant son Bo, is eventually invited by Karen to assist her on a project. He politely declines, only to get roped into an unorthodox arrangement wherein he agrees to obey her every wish in exchange for a promise of professional excellence. All is not what it seems, though, as it becomes obvious that Karen is attempting to separate Thorkild from his family. The nature of Karen and Thorkild’s relationship becomes increasingly murky and subject to skepticism from Grete.
“…Karen is attempting to separate Thorkild from his family.”
While The Pact may sound overly sinister to some, August extracts ample nuance out of the cast, ensuring we’re never left without sympathy for Karen. The film’s success hinges upon Neumann’s calculated performance, and she gives the role the requisite amount of ambiguity, keeping the audience guessing as to her true motivations. A broken woman with a traumatic past – which we eventually learn more about – Karen remains a domineering force for all in her proximity.
It’s refreshing to see a reversal of the usual power dynamic between decrepit old men and their nubile muses. Thorkild is putty in Karen’s hands as she subtly pushes him to abandon his cookie-cutter domesticity in favor of a more authentic approach to his writing. She goes so far as to encourage him to pursue an affair with the beautiful but married Benedicte (Asta Kamma August). Karen claims that living on the edge of morality provides for superior artistry, and Thorkild begins to realize that his existence as a husband and father is incompatible with Karen’s uncompromising method towards literature.
The formal approach in The Pact is far from exciting, and the undeniably slow pacing surely won’t be for everyone. Heavy on exposition and careful framing emphasizing the interplay between the performers, this has all the markings of prestigious European cinema. This is a film for those with an affinity for subdued performances, not for those expecting a fast-paced drama brimming with unbridled passion. I don’t find this to be an indictment of The Pact, though, as it speaks more to the conditioned expectations of modern audiences. Of course, there are times when one wishes August would have added some flair if only to provide a counterbalance to the quieter moments. But anyone yearning for a thoughtful foreign drama filled with a first-rate cast need look no further.
"…a first-rate cast..."